An archaeology of artificial geysers

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.

View of the geyser setting from the information zone

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.

Operation

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.

Strokkur in 2015 (photo: Jan Brophy)

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.

1882 diagram of the Great Geyser, near Strokkur (wikipedia creative commons licence)

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.

Wikipedia
Mike Mozolin

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.

Pre-eruption
Post-eruption flooding of the basin

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’.

Gerry Images

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.

Lady Knox geyser, NZ, in 2009 (Photos: Jan Brophy)

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!

Buried alive

For the next issue of History Scotland magazine, I have written an article on Scotland’s urban standing stones. In this blog post I want to expand on the rich story of one of those standing stones, the Lang Stane in Aberdeen. At the end of the blog post there can be found links to posts I have written about some of the other stones mentioned in the article.

Hidden in plain sight, only the throw of a fish supper away from Union Street in Aberdeen, stands the Lang Stane, a most peculiar example of urban prehistory. This angular standing stone is squeezed into a niche in a wall, looking remarkably like a human corpse that has been crammed into a coffin, buried alive. The stone has a kinetic, restless energy, as if at night it tries to escape from the confines of its premature burial. Inscribed – branded – across this stone cadaver in what I assume to be the torso area is the word LANG STANE in capital letters, with a suggestive slight pause between the two halves of its name, the deep breath taken before the coffin lid closes. Curious linear marks run across the stone, mostly natural erosion lines – wrinkles – but some hint at rough treatment at some point in the stone’s life – scars.

Is this actually a prehistoric standing stone? If it is, clearly something happened between 2000 BCE and AD 2000 that caused the stone to end up in this unorthodox setting. It’s shape has led some to suggest that it was once part of a recumbent stone circle, commonplace in North-east Scotland, although it is unknown what happened to the remainder of this monument, most likely a victim of more interventionist farming practices and early urbanisation in the post-medieval period. Canmore offers little more than a description of the stone, largely drawing on a brief note from Wyness’s 1965 book City by the grey North Sea: Aberdeen, a surprisingly rare mention of this stone in a book about the city.

The stone is shown alone in the 1746 Map of the Burgh of Aberdeen by G&W Paterson, here a solitary stone near a windmill; it sits poised to be swallowed up a tidal wave of urbanisation coming from the east, beside the track that would become Union Street. When the inevitable happened at some point after this map was made, according to Wyness, the stone was “built into the niche at the rear of Messrs. Watt and Grant’s building” and the street named Langstane Place. The niche is on the corner with Dee Street, named for the river, not the Tudor alchemist.

Extract from G&W Paterson’s 1746 map of Aberdeen (National Map Library of Scotland)

Appropriately for Aberdeen this stone is made of granite, and so it blends in with the background stonework and niche, three shades of grey. This is a big lump of stone, measuring 1.8m height, 0.68m breadth and 0.3m thick. It is pointed at both ends, more so at the bottom, which has a slightly green tinge. We have no way of telling which way up this monolith stood in any earlier incarnation in a stone socket; for all we know it is propped upside down, a cruel fate indeed. Little more can be said about this stone now, and I don’t think any form of direct analysis of the stone itself could shed more light on the story; this has moved from the purview of prehistorians to those who like to dig in archives.

The stone is enjoyed by some regardless of how old it is or how it got there despite the unpromising surrounds. A series of wonderfully strange photos can be found online showing the stone in various compromising situations. In the Megalithic Portal, The Captain documents the stone is “now presented in an alcove behind Burger King …. The poor thing seems neglected amongst the bins and street signs, but at least it is still here.” This is reinforced by a Google Street View image that looks like the work of Cold War Steve. Why not create your own versions?

7 Dee Street, Aberdeen (from The Megalithic Portal)
My own google street view attempt looking west along Langstane Place

There is a really lovely blog post written about the Lang Stane by the author Ailish Sinclair, who includes the stone in her historical novel Fireflies and Chocolate (GWL Publishing, 2021). She suggests the stone was moved to the niche in the 1960s but this must be a confusion with the published note on the stone by Wyness. She also notes a “faint six pointed star just below the text” carved onto the stone although I confess I could not find this on my visits to the stone. She also notes, “I like to pay the stone a wee visit when I’m in the vicinity, all tucked away and squished into its alcove as it is. There’s no scenic rolling hillsides or lush forests for the Lang Stane as enjoyed by its contemporaries!”. Such standing stones are indeed in unfamiliar surroundings, their present setting having been occupied perhaps for only 5% of the lifetime of the megalith.

I visited the Lang Stane twice in preparation for this blog post and the magazine article. I was of course drawn to the incongruity of the stones and its context, an unintentional masterpiece of urban juxtaposition. It sits on a curving street corner in the aforementioned bespoke niche, raised slightly from the pavement level on a sort of kerb, but not the kind of kerb that was in common use in the Bronze Age. Above it is an antiquarian road sign with a portentous finger pointing up the street and over the head of the stone.

The niche itself is in many ways as interesting as the stone itself, as I also found to be the case at the London Stone. It is defined by clean rectangular grey granite blocks, with shaped blocks forming an arch. The tidy look is somewhat let down by a metal cable concealer running vertically just to the left of the stone and a downpipe beyond this has caused unsightly water stains to form on one side of the niche. No history has been written about the niche, nor do blueprints or architect’s drawings exist (so far as I know) to show if and how it has developed through time. However, this old archival photo (source) suggests that at one point like so many urban standing stones this one was caged or held in position, in effect pinned down to avoid resurrection. And there was a much larger niche at this point too, coarser in stonework, wider in girth; indeed the different stonework suggests that this is a different niche, although presumably in the same location. Hints in the current stonework suggest there have indeed been modifications here.

The Lang Stane (date unknown)

I could see no offerings behind or beneath the stone, and nothing was draped from it, although surely from time to time football scarves are wrapped around it. The stone shares this streetside location with bins – a lot of bins as most of the images above show. Graffiti can also be found nearby: SAVE TREES FREE SPIRIT according to a 2007 photo on the the Megalithic Portal. This is a city centre edgeland, a place of smells and oozing liquid, a visceral street corner location, no place for a standing stone. But exactly the kind of place where we do need standing stones.

Diagonally across from the stone is a carry-out food place called Langstane Fish & Chips. This ensures a regular supply of punters walking to and fro to collect kebabs, sausage suppers, burgers and pizza slices. The standing stone is an irresistible place to eat beside, with the ritual consumption of food likely the kind of thing that happened around this stone millennia ago.

I started this blog post with the observation that this stone reminds me of Victorian photos of open caskets, the public display of bodies, memento mori. This postmortem photography was very popular for a while, a means to memorialise the dead on film. In some cases, the corpse was arranged as if asleep to give this impression in the photograph. Sometimes this was done publicly with the bodies notorious criminals, to show that they were indeed dead, and to kill myths and legends there and then, yet unintentionally creating a legend nonetheless.

This process, quite alien to us now, as alien in many ways as erecting a standing stone, captures for me some of the more ghoulish elements of urban prehistory. The Lang Stane sits on display, exposed, and for all intents it plays dead as drunks stagger past, and tourists trace the contours in the granite with their fingers. Photographers are drawn to it, not for the beauty of the stone but the weirdness of its setting, and like the dead it can do nothing except accept how it has been posed for our benefit.

But the Lang Stane, like other urban standing stones, does not ask for our sympathy, but might benefit from our thoughts, our concern, our whispers, a little care. It is resilient and will no doubt outlive us all. At least it is still here.

Weep not for me my parents dear,
I am not dead but sleeping here
‘.

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Jan who accompanied me on both visits and took the night-time photos in the blog above.

Links to blog posts about some of the standing stones in my Historic Scotland article (details of this article will be added when it is published):

Granny Kempock, Greenock – In the shadow of the stone (Urban Prehistorian post 84)

Dagon Stone – Dagon Day (UP post 7)

Hoar Stane, Tulllibody – The solace of deep Anthropocene time (UP post 97)

Ravenswood Avenue standing stone, Edinburgh – Behind bars (UP post 28)

USAs / Urban Solstice Alignments

This blog post is a collaborative effort between journalist and author Jimmy Thomson and myself. It concerns the phenomenon that I have taken to calling USAs (Urban Solstice Alignments). Jimmy is the Sydney-based polymath who first brought this concept to my attention, leading to an earlier blog post I wrote on the topic, What would we do if the sun died?, which focused on the most famous USA in the USA (and indeed the world), Manhattanhenge. In this new post, we’ll focus on the logistics of finding and making sense of urban solstice alignments through both analogue and digital means. By searching for the phenomenon, will we destroy its magic?

How to find your own Manhattanhenge by Jimmy Thomson

I have been promising the Urban Prehistorian for more than a year to write something about how to discover your own Manhattanhenge in a town or city near you. Now, I should make it clear that I am neither a geographer, cartographer, astronomer nor a mathematician.  I’m a journalist, author and travel writer with all the lack of useful skills that implies.

Manhattanhenge is a phenomenon that occurs when the rising or setting sun appears between the high-rises of New York and shines directly down its East-West aligned streets. People travel to New York to see it, and it occurs on two days in both May and December, so it’s a big deal (to some).

But given that it’s just the rising sun appearing or the setting sun disappearing between buildings or even the sides of a steep valley, surely this must occur elsewhere. And it does, although possibly not as spectacularly as in New York or, indeed, Stonehenge. In fact, you may be able to find one near you and this is how to do it.

Firstly you will need to identify a long straight road that drops towards the horizon and has no obstructions (like buildings) at its farthest end.  To get the full effect, you the sun to appear on the horizon where the diffraction of light through the thick layers of the atmosphere has greatest effect.  Basically, we’re probably talking about somewhere over water or flat land.

You don’t want the street to be perfectly aligned East-to-West as that would only work close to the equator.  The best streets in NYC for viewing Manhattanhenge are on 118 degrees, which is  full 28 degrees south of East.

Then you will need Google Maps and two free online apps called SunEarthTools and another named Mapping and Distance Tools.  There are other online apps that will do what we want here and if you can find them and get them to work, go for it. Basically you want one app that will establish the compass direction of the road line, and another that will tell you exactly when the sun will rise at that point on the horizon.

So first we identify a likely location – a long straight road, dropping to the horizon, with high sides and no obstructions.  This is where Google Maps comes in handy as you can use the 3D satellite view to check for obstructions and the height of the buildings along the sides.

For the purposes of this exercise, I have chosen Hooker Boulevard running down to Mermaid Beach (the thin while line in the centre of this image above, from Google Maps), in Broadbeach in the Gold Coast area of Queensland, Australia.

Why there?  Because I know that whole area has a lot of high rises that go all the way down to the beach.  It ain’t Manhattan but a quick scan of Google maps confirms that the road is straight and runs roughly East.

The next thing is to use Mapping and Distance Tools to draw a line from where you might view the phenomenon to where the road runs out.

The display in the top left corner will give you the azimuth or compass direction that this line follows.

In this case the road runs straight down a line heading 79 degrees from North.

Then we move on to the SunEarth app where we can fiddle with the times and dates to find out exactly when the sun will rise on or near that point on the horizon.

This tells us that the sun will rise there at a few seconds before 6.04 am on April 16, this year.

Now, the sun doesn’t go straight up, it also travels north or south as it rises, so you might want to adjust by a day or so to get the best effect when the sun has fully risen. SunEarth will show the variations hour by hour. So there you go. 

Find some canyon, concrete or otherwise, pointing roughly East-South-East in the Northern hemisphere, or ENE south of the equator, and start working the map apps to find the optimum date, and you have your own Manhattanhenge.

This can work just as well for sunsets although obviously you change the principal direction from East to West.

This may now be factored into holiday planning as well as potential romantic first dates for geeks, especially if you go for sunsets.

Most importantly, you may also have acquired a new appreciation of how clever the Mayans, Egyptians, Druids (if indeed it was them) and all the ancient standing stone cultures were.

The ubiquity of USAs suggests this is all a big coincidence but that doesn’t invalidate the experience that some people have of this phenomenon by Kenny Brophy

In a recent study of the levels of entropy of urban networks, Geoff Boeing suggested that ‘networks such as streets, paths, and transit lines organize the human dynamics of complex urban systems. They shape travel behavior (sic), location decisions, and the texture of the urban fabric’ (2019, 1). However, what if another organisational factor was at play here – the sun?

The alignment of straight urban streets towards solstice sunrises and sunsets as discussed by Jimmy is a recognised international phenomenon. There are actually quite a few of these, almost all with the suffix -henge, making of course a conceptual connection with Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument in England that is commonly thought to have solar elements built into its architectural organisation. (Perhaps we should call this particular effect Stonehengehenge.) These events generally happen on a day or two each year, and sometimes draw crowds of early risers wearing sunglasses.

And so in North America, we have Manhattanhenge, in New York, but there is also Chicagohenge, Montrealhenge, Torontohenge, and Phillyhenge (Philadelphia). It is perhaps not surprising that the best-known examples of this phenomenon are in North America. Boeing’s study concludes that, ‘on average, US/Canadian study sites are far more grid-like than those elsewhere, exhibiting less entropy and circuity’. This is certainly the case for Manhattan, Philadelphia and Chicago. Boeing’s data shows why there is a Manhattenhenge but not a Bostonhenge.

Boeing 2019 Figure 3
Cities that have USAs are more likely to be organised high-entropy cites (bottom left) (Boeing 2019, Fig 7)

Furthermore, opportunities to witness such events seem to be increasing: the equivalent in Washington DC is called ‘DC Henge week‘ reflecting the inherently non-precise nature of aligning the sun and skyscrapers, and this can all work for sunsets as well as sunrises, doubling the equinox fun. These events are perfect for instagramers and tweeters, wonderfully hashtaggable.

Chicagohenge, seen from West Adams Street on March 12 2020 (photo: Tim Hara from Adler Planetarium webite)
Phillyhenge September 5th 2012 (from Hidden City wesbite)
Torontohenge (@serenevistas)

Further afield, there are USAs in Australia (Melbhenge) and has been made clear above, Jimmy has found one on the Gold Coast. There would seem potential for a Sydneyhenge but this one does not seem to have got much traction online. This might be a chance for Jimmy to get something started in that city, and often a -henge event can take on a momentum of its own once someone points it out and gives it a hashtag.

Melbhenge from twitter user @_jlrreyes (on Secret Melbourne website)

What is the value in the identification of such solar alignments? The phenomenon is often flagged up by city planetariums (planetaria?) as a tool to raise awareness of an interest in the skies in general, as is the case for New York and Chicago. Dr Rebecca Allen of the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing in Melbourne has argued that, ‘Melbhenge is a great time to explore how our modern landscape reflects the efforts our ancestors made to track the motions of the heavens’ suggesting a deeper educational value akin to the aspirations behind the construction of the Sighthill stone circles in Glasgow by Duncan Lunan. There is a sense that these experiences are not so much educational as primal. Jackie Faherty, an American Museum of Natural History astronomer, has suggested that, ‘Daily life in the 2000s does not have the same connection to the solar system that daily life hundreds of years ago did. Moments where we get to see an interplay with the sun or the planets with our everyday experiences such as a city grid are a reflection of how the human experience is complemented with a connection to the bigger picture of the cosmos’ (USA Today). Maybe it just makes us feel small and insignificant, an effect cities already have on some people.

One of the most pressing questions I suppose that some of those who witness a -henge USA are surely, ‘are these deliberately built into the city design’? Or ‘is this just all a big coincidence’? One way to look at this could be around the statistical probability that in a large urban network there would not be at least one street that aligned towards a solar solstice event.

This is explored albeit perhaps not from the point of view of the latter sentence in a website called On solstices and city planning designed by Demeter Sztanko. Here is presented street plans of hundreds of cities and big urban areas across the world showing where solstice alignments occur. This data comes from some kind of algorithm that has been focused on Open Streetmap: Sztanko describes his work as ‘pure math’ (The Guardian). I suppose this shows that by looking hard enough and by asking the right questions, -henge events are commonplace and everywhere. One does not need to focus on one street in one city as Jimmy suggests when one could algorithm an entire country. I do not mean to downplay the complexity of this piece of work as it presumably needs to take into account the location of the city in relation to the equator as well as the street plan, but it does show how USAs happen accidentally, an unexpected (and more often than not un-noticed) outcome of building a city. This website also fails to demonstrate causality: just because a pattern is evident does not mean that it is significant or deliberate, something Sztanko acknowledges. ‘Unfortunately I don’t know whether these alignments are intentional or just happen to be such on statistical basis’.

I suppose the sheer quantity and banality of the data ultimately points towards this being a unexpected byproduct of urbanisation. To illustrate this, I used this website to explore a city close to where I live – Glasgow. There is indeed a Glasgowhenge. In fact, there are potentially many of them in the area, due to the northwest-southeast trend of many streets. Most of these are short stretches of road and one would have to carry out some fieldwork to establish if they have the correct criteria for working as a -henge event as set out by Jimmy earlier on. Some are interesting from a coincidence point of view, such as Kenmuirhill, Mount Vernon, which runs close to the location of a Bronze Age cemetery that was excavated in the 1920s by Ludovic Mann. A short stretch of Cochno Road, near the Cochno Stone, also fits the bill.

Screen grab from Solstices & City Planning website: Glasgow. Red lines = solstice aligned street sections

But there are essentially no possible solstice alignments in the city centre, the grid layout of much of the city north of the Clyde running in the wrong direction. Furthermore, in Boeing’s data, Glasgow is no Chicago when it comes to grids and entropy.

From Boeing 2019

Having said that, there is more than one type of Glaswegian prehistoric urban alignment if Harry Bell is to be believed, his network of aligned sites somewhat more free-form and not dependent on either street layout or the movement of the sun.

The map from Harry Bell’s Glasgow’s Secret Geometry: the City’s Oldest Mystery.

A combination of the high-level data at mapping level, followed by fieldwork at the right time of the year, would no doubt illuminate some fun experiences to be had some mornings or evenings in some cities around the world. This is probably enough to be getting on with.

USAs are derived from two different overlapping human urges – pareidolia (seeing patterns in things) and an obsession with the sun. In USAs this becomes entangled with our concepts of time and the calendar, and desire for urbanisation. In that sense if it is fascinating contemporary human phenomenon. What is remarkable about the song and dance, the branding, the crowds, the sunglasses, and the search for meaning is that in almost all cases this is meaningless in the sense that whatever we think we are experiencing was never intended to happen. This does not invalidate the experience of a USA but it does suggest that we are making this stuff up as we go along and reading our own meaning into the experience. As Boeing notes, cities can be ‘planned or unplanned, ordered and disordered’, and the same could be said about stone circles and henges.

There is nothing wrong with any of this, and searching for a -henge in the streets of you city, or on the screen of your laptop, is not in itself futil. Reading too much into whatever you find might well be, but then that is what makes us human, and connects us to the original henge builders from millennium ago.

Sources and acknowledgements: I must thank Jimmy Thomson for writing part of this blog post and encouraging me to think about USAs again. This blog post also makes reference to this academic paper:

Boeing, G 2019 Urban spatial order: street network orientation, configuration, and entropy. Applied Network Science 4: 67.

The Venus of Niddrie

Following lines across the landscape – roads, canals, disused railway lines, desire lines – in an instinctive way, tracing the route of least resistance, reveals connections across space and time that are often unexpected. Walking between two prehistoric ceremonial centres in central Scotland – Cairnpapple Hill and Huly Hill – focused our attention on the spaces in between. Far distant from either of these ancient-yet-modern places, in a slump, many kilometres to go, we had a prehistoric encounter without knowing it. 30th April 2015, on a pilgrimage to Beltane, we encountered the Venus of Niddrie.

Prehistoric pilgrimage – Gavin MacGregor in 2015 (photo: K Brophy)
A pilgrimage back to the Niddrie Woman – John Latham in 1990 (photo: Murdo MacDonald)

In Cal Flyn’s wonderful book Islands of Abandonment. Life in a post-human landscape (William Collins, 2021) there are a few entanglements with my own blogging, notably a trip to Inchkeith, my islands of animal and ceramic middens in Talus. My modest journeys around the post-prehistoric places of Scotland cannot compare with Flyn’s evocative depictions of resilient post-human places, but where out paths have crossed has made me think. Nowhere more so than the red shale bing landscapes of West Lothian.

Flyn writes about these bings. Silbury Hill-like red eminences and amorphous mounds that dominate the landscape around towns and villages such as Broxburn, Winchburgh and Niddrie; seen from the M8 motorway one is reminded of the red sandstone outcrops in central Australia. These awesome spoil heaps are nineteenth century remnants of an industry that extracted oil from shale for use as paraffin, a sort of Victorian fracking, which produced a lot of waste and changed this place, perhaps forever. These changes include many unintended consequences.

Winchburgh and Greendykes shale bings from the SW in 2012 (Crown Copyright)

The mining and extraction industries of central Scotland have left behind these legacy landscape features, terraforming via waste products. There are familiar landmarks with names – the Five Sisters, the Mexican Hat. As Flyn notes, they are also places of rich biodiversity against all odds: “…ruinous, utterly neglected sites such as these have become refugia for wildlife”. Life as we know finds a way and it seems that this way is easier to find when humans leave it alone. Yet these are also weird and alien places, ‘quasi-Martian landscapes’ as Craig Robertson has called them, that had a troubling impact on the authorities and an unknown psychological impact on local communities.

Completely slipping my mind until I read the chapter in Flyn’s book focused on these ‘waste lands’ was the fact that these artificial miniature mountain ranges were a target for the artist collective the Art Placement Group (APG). I visited a fascinating exhibition about the work of this group at Summerhall, Edinburgh, in autumn 2016 called Context is Half the Work. As the exhibition notes explain,

“The Artist Placement Group (APG) was founded in the UK in 1966. The group initiated and organised placements for artists within industry and public institutions where they would research, develop ideas and projects in-situ. According to the APG principle, artistic practices and knowledge no longer needed to be confined to the studio, but the reach of the artist could extend to commercial, industrial and government contexts in order to contribute to social and organisational processes at all levels”.

Source: Context is Half the Work exhibition archive

The exhibition focused on seven projects delivered by the group working with different branches of government, the civil service, industry, and the media in UK in the 1960s and 1970s, including placements with British Steel and STV. One such project was work done by John Latham (1921-2006) across three months with the Scottish Office and Scottish Development Department (SDD) in 1975-76. (Sadly I can’t find my photos from this exhibition in my cavernous office and so I am relying on archived websites to fill in details in my memory here, especially the exhibition archive.) However I have tracked down the physical booklet that I took away with me that day.

As the Tate explains, the Art Placement Group was an attempt to radically change the role of the artist in society; during Latham’s placement with the SDD, he was tasked with “reimagining these giant spoil heaps … and finding them new purpose” (Flyn 2021, 36). This is when something remarkable happened, because Latham proposed that nothing should be done to the bings. “He attempted to save them from destruction by having them declared ‘works of art’” (Exhibition archive). His rationale was surprisingly prehistoric.

Derelict Land Art: Five Sisters 1976 John Latham 1921-2006 Purchased 1976 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T02071

Latham argued that the huge shapeless shale bings around Broxburn and Niddrie were actually giant piece of land art representing what he called the ‘Niddrie Woman’. Cal Flyn notes that Latham suggested that they “had been constructed by 10,000 hands over decades, along the lines of ancient hill figures like the Cerne Abas Giant or the Uffington Horse” (pg 36). Flyn and Roberston both note that he even compared the arrangement of these bings to Palaeolithic ‘venus figurines’, while artist Lucy Lippert in 1983 saw a parallel for these artificial mounds in Silbury Hill, a Neolithic hill with sometime fertility associations. The different bings were allocated body parts of this woman – the torso, the heart, the head and the limb. This was a powerful reallocation of these bings from one sphere of human endeavour – the economic – to another – the spiritual.

Latham’s Niddrie Woman, inverted with south to the top (source: Tate)

Proposals for sculptures or beacons on the top of these bings never came to pass and it would be interesting to find out what civil servants who tasked him with rethinking these bings made of his ideas which were in effect a plea for them to be left alone and not redeveloped or removed. Robertson suggests that they found it compelling, but also notes that in hindsight Latham’s proposal “lacks objective analysis and by turns is sentimental and ponderous, philosophical and stoic. His commentary is biting and highly subjective, castigating planning decisions that failed to consider ‘the bigger picture’.”. One of the implications of his vision is that these bings are more valuable as land art than they are as industrial heritage, even if they are land art only by dint of him suggesting this to be the case.

The view from the air inspired much of Latham’s thinking about the Greendykes shale bings in particular, a collection of several spoil heaps. Robertson writes: “An aerial viewpoint was deemed by Latham to offer a perspective and scale of an otherwise unobtainable human consciousness, and played a hugely important role in his work.” This in interesting as the aerial view has been critiqued by archaeologists such as Matthew Johnson and Chris Tilley (and me!) as being reductive, detached, even non-human in relation to prehistoric possibilities. Latham’s consideration of the bings in West Lothian as being elements of the Niddrie Woman bring to mind the fantasies of the Nazca Lines, or Harry Bell’s Network of Alignments in Glasgow: confections created somehow that cannot have been viewed from above. Thus the Niddrie Woman is an impossible thing, illegible on the ground. Yet it is the spatial and temporal impossibilities that make the whole notion so compelling.

Aerial photograph of Niddrie Woman (source: Tate / Ministry of Defense Crown Copyright / Estate of John Latham)

The Winchburgh shale bing is listed in Scotland’s National Record of the Historic Environment and is one of two of these shale bings to be Scheduled Monuments. Noted industrial historian John Hume called this a “spectacular shale-oil bing of flat-topped type” in his 1976 book The industrial archaeology of Scotland volume 1. This is far removed from John Latham’s visionary and eccentric characterisation of this landscape feature from the same year.

It was this bing that Gavin MacGregor and I encountered on our pilgrimage walk in 2015 where this blog post began. Our route from Cairnpapple Hill henge and cairns included passing through the partially ruinous Bangour Village Hospital (a former psychiatric facility), Uphall, then following a dismantled railway line from Ecclesmachan towards Niddrie and Winchburgh. The south to Newbridge and some standing stones.

Bangour
Industrial debris / cups and rings

But miles before Newbridge, ahead, lay the monstrous bing, and we were magnetically attracted to it, resisting routes of least resistance, cutting across the land.

We hugged along the south side of this bing closely on the footpath beside the Union Canal.

The red scree slope dominated our vision for about 15 minutes of walking, but at the time we did not understand this to be The Heart of the Niddrie Woman, the place where Latham’s ashes have been scattered.

The scree-slope plunged into the canal, bushes and scrubs hanging onto the side, almost on the verge of rolling down to the water, tumbling weeds, hinting at impossible fecundity. Cal Flyn wrote about the bings being symbols of fertility, Venus rising from the industrial ruins, prehistoric in all but name. If ‘Venus figurines’ were indeed teaching aids as some archaeologists have argued, then we can learn much from these giants.

Murdo MacDonald has written in The Drouth about a journey to the Niddrie Woman with John Latham in 1990, a different type of pilgrimage in a landscape of deep personal time. In this piece he also documents in detail the scattering of Latham’s ashes on ‘The Heart’ in 2006. This photo essay also includes evocative images of Latham surveying the different elements of the Niddrie Woman, a curious mixture of lunar wasteland and memorial to our extractive pasts.

John Latham On the Heart (1990, photo Murdo MacDonald)
Torso stratigraphy (photo: Murdo MacDonald)

When up close, one is struck by the stratigraphies of these spoil heaps, inverted geological strata, sections drawn into mounds that evidence this land being ‘stripped bare’ (as Flyn puts it) and reconfigured in random arrangements. There can be no definite purpose to these slopes and hollows, peaks and troughs, other than the convenience of disposal, and a lack of care for the living. One cannot help but admire the bravado of Latham’s act of landscape pareidolia, seeing patterns were there were none, summoning the spirits of prehistory to subvert our more recent heritage and its destructive tendencies.

On reflection, our pilgrimage walk passed by The Heart of the Venus of Niddrie with a respectful nod but little more than that. The red scree was almost too much to process, its meaning having been extracted by mining machines, leaving behind a waste product that escaped out imaginations, our sore feet, our hungry stomachs. Our focus was the prehistory where we began and ended our walk – and yet here it was in front of us in all of its scarlet beauty.

Sources and acknowledgements: this blog post was very much dependent on several sources that have been credited already in the text but for the sake of clarity these were:

Cal Fly 2021 Islands of Abandonment. Life in a post-human landscape (William Collins).

Murdo MacDonald date? John Latham’s Niddrie Woman photo essay. The Drouth.

Craig Richardson 2012 Waste to Monument: John Latham’s Niddrie Woman. Tate Papers 17.

Context of Half the Work. A partial history of the Artist Placement Group. Exhibition archive.

Lucy R. Lippard, Overlay. Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, New York 1983.

I would also very much like to thank Gavin MacGregor for suggesting and leading our pilgrimage walk back in 2016. May we do another – and soon.

Antiqua sub urbana

For most people, decolonial narratives are largely confined to the world of academics and cultural organisations getting on and doing this good work, except when government ministers and journalists decide to make a scary anti-woke fuss about it. However, in spring 2021, as we emerged from yet another lockdown, a carved critique of familiar colonial narratives was erected on a pavement in the centre of Falkirk, a statement in stone aimed at giving back agency to Iron Age people who once lived in this area. This public display of ‘flipping the script on colonial narratives’ as Louisa Campbell has so memorably put it has the power to open up new conversations about both Roman and ‘native’ relations, although there are problematic aspects of this new Antonine Wall distance sculpture that I want to reflect on here.

This political carved stone – a newly created distance sculpture for the Antonine Wall – was installed in central Scottish town Falkirk as part of the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall Project which is delivering a programme of instillations across the five council areas in central Scotland that the Antonine Wall traverses – from west to east, West Dunbartonshire, Glasgow, East Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire, and Falkirk. This has included Roman-themed children’s playparks and art installations as well as a series of replica distance sculptures.

Callander Park playpark (photo: Warren Baillie)
The Silvanus sculpture, near Croy, during construction in February 2021 (by Svetlana Kondokova and Big Red Blacksmiths)

For me (as I am not a 7 year-old child), the most exciting is the series of replica sandstone distance sculptures which are (almost all) copies of original carved stones found along the Antonine Wall. These iconic stones included information about the construction of the Wall in that location as well as a good deal of aggrandisement of the Emperor by blowing smoke up his ass in Latin abbreviation format. The Hunterian Museum has a fine collection of these stones, and a range of replicas. These objects are perhaps better known as ‘distance slabs’ but I am in agreement with Campbell’s deconstruction of this terminology.

Screengrab during a talk by Louisa Campbell to Glasgow Archaeological Society in December 2020 (image: NMS)

While much ink has been spilt on the imagery, wording and position of these stones, their study has more recently been elevated by Louisa Campbell, based at the University of Glasgow, whose brilliant analysis using pXRF (portable X-ray fluorescence) and Raman spectrometry has shown that these stones were originally painted, adding to the psychological impact these stones would have had on the indigenous population.

Bridgeness slab colour visualisation (by Lars Hummelshoj, reproduced from Campbell 2020 with permission)

The bold colours such as reds and yellows with white would have added to the effect of these stones as they often depicted poor Iron Age people being trampled under Roman horses or killed by their colonisers, making the locals face up to their trauma on a near daily basis. This was the Iron Age equivalent of the impact of the rich claret of a Hammer Horror film on a cinema audience in 1957 and I suppose in some cases would also have been ‘triggering’ for certain Iron Age people to use contemporary parlance.

The replication of a range of these distance sculptures over the past 18 months does not perhaps present the public with the bold colours of the originals, but nonetheless they do have an impact on the viewer even today as stunning and powerful pieces of art. These were all sculpted old-school style with actual hand tools and real craftsmanship, by artists including City of Glasgow College stonemasonry students. These are generally set into sandstone walls and have accompanying information boards. Jan and I managed to visit all of these, mostly during lockdowns.

The Eastermains sculpture, Twechar, still under wraps in January 2021
Eastermains unveiled by February 2021
The Old Kilpatrick installation, in June 2021
The Arniebog distance stone plinth awaits the distance stone, January 2021, at Auchendavie
Bridgeness, July 2021, an earlier replica with new noticeboards

I must admit that one of the things that always put me off Roman archaeology was the depiction of non-Roman people as ‘natives’, a term I have always found unsavoury. The terminology being used is now changing, and the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall team are doing their bit to humanise the ‘defeated’ locals who were no more and no less Iron Age people living a typical farming lifestyle who ended up in the path of an expansionist empire with a professional army. Think of the opening scenes of the movie Gladiator but set in Kilsyth. There is a little content on Iron Age people on the project website, and a wooden Iron Age ‘chief’ stands at the entrance to the Callander playpark. Also included is a (wooden) hoard of Roman coins, of more later.

Callander Park entrance (The Scotsman)

But the most interesting element of this change in messaging about the militarised Roman focus on the Wall is the new Falkirk distance sculpture. This really rather special piece of art was commissioned by the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall project with the aspiration of disrupting the colonial narrative of Wall sculpture. The stone itself was designed and carved by Jo Crossland and Luke Batchelor. It depicts a subversion of the normal sculpture imagery, showing Iron Age people at peace in their daily lives or at war defending themselves. By depicting aspects of their lives that are not defined by their defeat and subjugation, it renders local people as active agents, not passive fools.

The sculpture knowingly adopts the tropes of the Roman originals, in terms of composition, writing and the Roman numeral dating (MMXX) but also subverts at every opportunity from language to the pictures. It shows a broch (and indeed there is a rare lowland broch near Falkirk, Tappoch) and a carnyx, the Iron Age battle horn. A Roman soldier is trampled underfoot by a horse, a direct reversal of imagery on stones such as Bridgeness. The stone also acts as a tribute to the ‘legion’ of volunteers who engaged with the project, although to me it works best as a political statement. The commissioning brief for this piece of work asked for such an approach: “The design should include reference to the local Iron Age population…”. 

Louisa Campbell has written about the replica sculptures and in particular the Falkirk example. She notes that the images on this new stone directly respond to consultation responses from the public. “These images explore wider perspectives in the story of the Roman occupation of Scotland as requested by members of the local communities consulting on the project who expressed a desire to incorporate scenes of local people fighting back against hostile Roman attacks” (2021, 21). This is about a desire to see a community marginalised in Antonine Wall imagery and narratives given a voice; it shows an underdog story.

Original drawing by and © Josephine Crossland and Luke Batchelor, first published in Campbell 2021, reproduced here with permission

However, this aspect of the consultation does trouble me a little. Are we in danger of replacing one myth with another, the evil colonist replaced by the noble colonised? The violent imagery on the new distance sculpture may serve for some viewers as a revenge narrative: are you not entertained? This reminds me a little uncomfortably of what many kids who grew up in Scotland at the same time as me thought about the Romans in Scotland – something I recounted in a recent paper about the past and Scotland’s independence referendum:

“…..dogged Pictish resistance against Roman invaders, the unconquerable Scots, in contrast to the English
who folded at the first sight of a Roman ship (a silly mythology engrained in the minds of Scottish
school children of my generation!) (Brophy 2020, 59).

Perhaps unsurprisingly media coverage of this new carved stone focused on the ‘fighting back’ narrative, such as a headline in The Scotsman on 30th April 2020, Northern warriors who fought the Romans in Scotland to be celebrated at Antonine Wall. So there could be a problem with the messaging here. On the other hand perhaps my stance here could be interpreted as victim blaming, not my intention. This is about nuance.

For me, the most significant element of the sculpture occurs in the bottom right-hand corner. Here we have a scene showing the handing over of the hoard of coins from Romans to locals (rendered in wood in the new playpark). This can be interpreted in a number of different ways – a bribe, a payment for services rendered, a transactional arrangement, a gift perhaps creating an obligation. Here we have in one image all of the complexity of the Roman-Iron Age relationship that is not truly reflected in images of violence regardless of who the perpetrator is, because not everyone who lived here when the Romans were about was killed, and some may have done rather well out of the situation. This is not to downplay the physical and psychological violence of colonisation, but the hoard does allow I think a springboard to open up new conversations amongst the public about the short occupation of southern Scotland. Perhaps more broadly it forces reflection on other colonial narratives, where Scots were the colonists and did the trampling underfoot.

And this is rooted in archaeological reality. The hoard is a real thing, a clay pot found in 1933 containing 1925 Roman silver coins the latest of which date to the 3rd century AD, which is incidentally long after the Wall was built and in use. Were the locals ‘paid to behave‘? Todd in 1985 argued that the hoard “represents payments to a barbarian leader or dynasty in return for the maintenance of peace and order north of the Antonine Wall in the period c AD 160-230” suggesting how complex these colonial relationships probably were. The deposition of these coins, perhaps with ritual overtone as suggested of such hoards in the ScARF Roman panel report, adds another dimension to the significance of this deposit.

The Falkirk hoard (c) National Museums of Scotland

A fragment of textile – a ‘tartan’ – was found with this hoard and this informs the clothing worn in this sculpture by the non-Romans which is a nice touch, but perhaps adds another layer to the rebellious free-spirited Scot narrative that lingers in our national consciousness.

(c) National Museums of Scotland

This new distance sculpture is located on Cow Wynd, a street than runs south from the pedestrianised heart of modern Falkirk. This is also the location of a Roman Fort that once stood here, but now it sits surrounded by a tattoo parlour, a cafeteria, a hair salon and a ladieswear boutique. The closeness to the main shopping strip in town and the thoroughfare of commuters and walkers will ensure that this new monument gets plenty of glances. Those who pause to read the noticeboards and take in the powerful images on the stone might also pause to think, be provoked, by the message that it conveys, propaganda of a very different type to that practiced by the Romans.

Location map of the Falkirk Distance Sculpture (Google Maps)

However, the information board to the right of the sculpture notes that this stone celebrates the native people, a phrase I am uneasy with and I am surprised was included. Indeed I think that more information could have been included here to help the casual passer-by to have an informed perspective on what the carved stone is signifying and how subversive its message actually is. There is no doubt this carved stone will provoke shoppers and commuters as they pass by – exasperans transeuntes – but what message will they read into the scenes depicted?

As Campbell notes, “The depicted scenes conflict with the originals as a means of eliciting an emotional response in the viewer … inviting them to consider different dynamics and new dimensions from the contradictory perspectives of local Iron Age peoples who had a different experience of events than the Roman military personnel that typically frames the narratives of existing scholarship” (2021, 23-4). It would be interesting to do some research around how this carved stone is consumed and what message punters take from it; as ever, texts of any kind convey messages that are difficult to control. There is also an assumption that the reader of this stone has a familiarity with the other distance sculptures and their imagery that are being subverted.

This is an interesting intervention and an innovative way to re-present an often mythologised and misunderstood period of the past of this part of Britain. As a means to challenge colonial narratives I think it is partially successful although it presents a white – and still largely male – version of this story and simplifies some complex issues. This is inevitable given the format that has been chosen to convey the message. Perhaps the contextualisation around this could be stronger, and more scenes that convey non-violent relationships would also have helped.

Heritage is at its best when it discomforts us and forces a re-evaluation of what we think our past was, and so in many ways this carved stone is a success at telling a story about the ancient beneath our feet – antiqua sub urbana. How the stone is consumed by locals and visitors remains to be seen.

Sources and acknowledgements: this blog post owes a lot to Dr Louisa Campbell who brought the Falkirk stone to my attention and shared her expertise with me. Her papers were also very helpful (full references below). Louisa, Jo and the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall project gave me permission to reproduce images in this blog post for which I am grateful. I would also like to thank the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall project and Emma McMullen for help in writing this post.

Sources mentioned in the text (all are open access and available online via links or googling):

Brophy, K 2020 Hands across the Border? Prehistory, Cairns and Scotland’s 2014 Independence Referendum. In Howard Williams, Pauline Clarke and Kieron Gleave (eds) Public Archaeologies of Frontiers and Borderlands. Archaeopress. Download here.

Campbell, L 2020 Polychromy on the Antonine Wall Distance Sculptures: Non-destructive Identification of Pigments on Roman Reliefs. Britannia 51, 175-201.

Campbell, L 2021 Flipping the Script on Colonial Narratives: Replicating Roman Reliefs from the Antonine Wall. Public Archaeology DOI: 10.1080/14655187.2021.1961438

Todd, M 1985 The Falkirk hoard of denarii: trade or subsidy?, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 115, 229-32.


Michael

My dad Michael is a very talented and creative man. I’m pretty sure his skills working with wood and carpentry would have made him an invaluable member of any Neolithic community. Good with his hands. A solver of problems. An improviser. When I was growing up I remember seeing on a shelf at my gran’s house a rabbit he carved from a block of wood, and to me it looked almost alive, life breathed into it by my father’s hands. It was dad who made the lovely little unit that I display my prehistoric style WH Goss pots on so you have probably seen his handiwork before if you follow this blog.

When we took my parents off for a few days to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary between lockdowns in autumn 2020, it struck me that both of them, and in particular my dad, were to some extent entangled with prehistoric rock-art. The hotel where my parents went on their honeymoon was the Cairnbaan Hotel, just on the southern edge of the Kilmartin Glen, a hotel with rock-art branding and a cup-and-ring marked stone on display just behind it.

I asked my parents about the rock-art and the cairns and standing stones that this area is so famous for – had they visited them on their honeymoon? No came the answer, although in 1970 they would have all been extant and presented to the public to some extent. To rectify this regrettable omission in the honeymoon programme, we took them to Temple Wood stone circles, Nether Largie South chambered cairn, and one of my favourite urban prehistory rock-art sites, Kilmichael Glassary. The name of the site – Kilmichael, the church of Michael – was not lost on me and my father was all too happy to oblige when we arrived on site.

The location of this large rock-art panel has always excited me, as it offers a viewing platform over houses and gardens, and is surrounded by a wonderful grey Ministry of Works Fence. In contrast to almost all of the other prehistoric sites in Kilmartin, this is proper urban.

This is a bit of an urban rock-art hotspot with the main panel showcased to the public being Kilmichael Glassary 1. KG 2 and 3 are smaller individual rocks while KG4 could not be located during recent Scotland’s Rock-art survey work at this locale.

Data Scotland’s Rock-art Project map, Kilmichael Glassary site indicated with the arrow. KG1-KG3 are indicated by small blue circles and KG4 by the grey circle,

The main panel is richly decorated outcrop of schist with wonderful natural cracks, fissures and hollows perfectly complementing the wide range of carved motifs to be found here.

The ScRAP team recorded the following description of this site:

A large, exposed rectangular area of outcrop measuring 7.4m by 3.8m and up to 0.7m in height, which slopes gently to the SE at a roughly 20 degree angle. The rock is a friable, medium grain schist with numerous fissures, natural hollows and has – in places – a rough surface. The panel as been decorated with over 150 motifs, including 110 cup marks, 7 large cup marks, 2 dumbbells, 5 cups with tails, 4 extended oval shaped motifs, 8 cups with partial rings, 1 cup with a tail and a partial ring enclosing the cup, 1 cup with a tail and a partial ring enclosing the cup and tail, 1 cup with a ring and tail from the cup to beyond the ring, a group of three cups enclosed by a ring, and three key hole shaped motifs: two of which are open at one end and the third of which is completely enclosed. There are also additional grooves, up to 5, which partially enclose a number of motifs on the lower E side of the panel.

This is of course not the first time I visited this site; this happened with friends many years ago when we were enjoying the NVA Half Life festival in Kilmartin Glen back in 2007. In the gloom we crawled across the surface of the rock, tracing out the cups and rings with our hands, most of them with deep shadows in their bases, the darkness of the ancient past unknown. There was an earthy dampness about the outcrop and it felt soft to the touch.

I had my fish eye camera with me that day and after some digging around in an old photo album, I found analogue documentation of that visit. One image (top left below) was an accidental double exposure which intermingled two carved rocks of very different eras – Glassary and Dunadd.

Kilmichael Glassary / Dunadd montage

Rock-art is very common in Kilmartin Glen, and there are bigger and better panels to be found, notably Achnabreck which like Glassary is surrounded by a grey metal fence but is also perhaps the largest panel yet found in Scotland. It has its merits but it is rather….rural. I have visited this site many many times on fieldtrips and I recall once that a student found a golf ball jammed into a cupmark.

These kind of juxtapositions were at the heart of Half Life, and I looked back at a review I wrote about the experience for the Scottish Archaeological Journal. I noted a booklet that was issued as part of this event with essays by archaeologists real (Mark Edmonds!) and fictional. (I have no memory of this booklet nor do I know where in my dump of an office I might find it.) My review notes:

There I was handed a handsome booklet and map to accompany the Half Life experience, part tour guide, part spiritual wayfinder. I love maps, and the beautifully produced map of Kilmartin Glen with my pack depicts 16 key sites to visit and details of how to get there, but also features near invisible silver contours one can only see by moving the map against the light. The booklet itself is lavishly illustrated, with thought-provoking essays by archaeologists and artists. One of the themes of the booklet is the role of archaeologists in making the past opaque and mysterious through our activities and discourse, a sentiment I have a great deal of sympathy with. Fictional ‘journal’ notes by the archaeologist at the centre of the evening ‘play’ describe a local rock-art panel as ‘a ‘heritaged’ ancient monument, surrounded by railings and the static and safe interpretations that neuter the real power of a site’. This was brought home by my visit to site 15, a wonderful series of panels of rock-art at Achnabreck, each outcrop surrounded by a grey metal fence, one with a ‘wet paint’ sign still hanging from it. Each panel was approached by a wooden walkway, reeking of wood preservative, disenfranchising the visitor
from the pastness of the place.

I am not sure I would be so negative now, the creosoting heightening the power of the experience, laying bare the stark otherness of the past, rather than watering down the pastness of this kind of place. The stink of this place was the smell of the intermingling of the ancient and the contemporary, ritual freedom and managerial stricture, a powerful intoxication. The fence around Kilmichael Glassary serves the same kind of role, framing the rock-art panel as if it were really art, offering a buffer between past and present, living rock and houses.

There is a lovely description of a first visit to Auchnabreck by Thomas Legendre, the writer of the play that formed an evening centrepiece of Half Life:

At Achnabreck I approached an outcrop – one of several at that site – and gazed at the carvings. They seemed like depictions of atoms, solar systems, dartboards, raindrops with ripples fanning outward, and they looked like none of these things. Some included tails or
gutters connecting with others to form compound motifs, or else they simply merged into natural cracklines and clefts in the rock. I crouched down and traced the designs, comparing their worn texture with the cracks and fissures of the rock scoured by glacial action – and with a jolt I realised the carvings had been fitted between natural breaks or rifts in the surface,
incorporating its complex microtopography. These designs hadn’t been imposed on the landscape as if it were a blank canvas. They included the rock itself.

These tactile revelations were not for my dad, mobility issues stopping him from walking up to Kilmichael, crossing the stile back to the Neolithic, dropping to his knees to trace the symbols with his carpenter’s hands. Nonetheless, I will continue to regard Kilmichael Glassary as my favourite panel in the area, elevated by its urban surroundings and the fact that I visited it mid-pandemic with my mum and dad.

Sources: my review of Half Life can be found in Scottish Archaeological Journal 28, 153-55 (spine date 2006, actually published 2008). The Legendre piece of writing can be found here: Legendre T (2011) Landscape-Mindscape: Writing in Scotland’s Prehistoric Future. Scottish Literary Review 3(2):121-132.

Seaside rock

Hanging around outside a gents toilets may not seem the most obvious way to do archaeology but needs must. That’s exactly what I did on a recent visit to Southerness, a beach with benefits south of Dumfries.

In many ways Southerness is a throw back to British holiday resorts of old, with its holiday park, amusement arcade, dingy pubs and garish fish and chip shops. Super-sixed plastic ice cream cones are propped outside cafes and it is possible to buy small buckets, spades, fishing nets, flippers and multi-coloured sticks of seaside rock. So it was the last place I expected to stumble upon potentially previously unrecognised rock-art. As part of a wall outside the gents toilet behind the bins.

As Jan and I stood enjoying the sun and our ice cream cones, I noticed a red sandstone block in the wall that had multiple small circular depressions on its surface. After a closer look I felt I could not rule out the possibility that these were cupmarks and that this was part of a larger panel that had been broken up during quarrying. Thankfully I always travel with a scale!

As you can see from these photos, there are no other stones with this pattern, which one could argue suggests that this is not a common natural erosion pattern for this rock. On close inspection the ‘cupmarks’ had regular edges, consistent shape and depth, and did not look natural. Checking along the wall I came across one other piece of rock like this, which had the same characteristics.

I am no expert, and it would need someone from Scotland’s Rock-Art Project (ScRAP) to come down and visually check these two stones and ideally survey the rest of the wall (which is actually quite extensive), but my sense is that there is a decent chance that these are remnants of a prehistoric carved stone that was quarried for wall material. When the wall was built and from whence the stone came from would be interesting to find out, an avenue for future research in the council archives and old maps.

I was heartened also that when I tweeted about this discovery, Joana Valdez-Tullett, an actual rock-art expert with ScRAP, could not rule these stones out this being prehistoric. However Hugo Anderson-Whymark’s (National Museum of Scotland prehistorian) response urges caution, which is fair enough. I’m not sure however that I agree that these marks could have been made by limpets (see here for info and images) but that does not mean we can rule of a natural (or non-prehistoric) causes.

I guess the other thing that makes me confident about my identification is the similarity of the closely-spaced small cupmark design to other panels in the vicinity. In particular it immediately reminded me of High Banks, a wonderful linear outcrop near Kirkcudbright c 24km to the west.

High Banks photographed in 1970s? (c) RCAHMS and now HES

This is an absolute cracker of a rock-art panel that I last visited with Julian Thomas during a day off from excavations at the Holywood cursus monuments in 1997. Carved across a linear group of outcrops some 30m in length, it consists of scores of closely packed cupmarks, some set in parallel lines, as well as other motifs such as cup-and-rings and grooves.

This remarkable panel was replicated as plaster casts which are now propped up outside The Stewarty Museum in nearby Kirkcudbright (a town better known to some as the location of some scenes from the 1973 movie The Wicker Man), a carved stone identity parade.

In themselves these wonderful casts are an urban prehistory pleasure to enjoy, but I won’t dwell on them here as fine words have already been written about these by others such as Gavin MacGregor. Gavin describes this ramshackle collection of carved stones (real and casts) thus:

I quickly looked outside to see a nest of carved stones sheltering together through the ages: piled up in front of the casts, quern stones and fonts, Medieval cross and prehistoric rock art reworked as architectural elements of later buildings.  A glass and steel framed disparate assemblage of esoteric forms revealing : a compelling urge to collect and display over the ages?

Inside the museum is a lovely historic record to accompany the casts, again here I am indebted to Gavin from whose blog I have taken this image.

He also noted that the panel itself had close connection to the artist Edward Atkinson Hornel, who probably first found the rock-art site in 1887, two years before the museum outside the casts are now propped was established.

The aforementioned Hugo of National Museums of Scotland carried out a 3D scan of the cast and was able to compare this with the original, which had been donated to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in 1892 before going back to the south-west again. Once again I am prompted to note that there is a wonderful research project waiting to be done on casts (and rubbings) of cup-and-ring marked stones, the value of which has been demonstrated by wonderful research on carved stone replicas by Sally Foster and Sian Jones.

Working version of the scan, tweeted by Hugo in March 2020 (c) NMS

So the Southerness stones are not out of character for rock-art in this part of Scotland, and it is also not unique to find a carved stone built into a wall. Joana Valdez-Tullett very kindly sent me a list of such sites suggesting this practice has been going on for 2000 years. Some of these are cup and cup-and-ring marked stones built into the walls of Iron Age structures such as souterrains and brochs. These include Kildrummy, Tealing and Leckie – clearly deliberate acts of inclusion which suggest a fascination with the past in this period.

However, there are closer parallels to Southerness in Scotland in terms of inclusion in post-medieval and modern walls. Here are the five examples identified by Joana; all images are from the ScRAP website. In four cases these are large stones that must have acted as wall foundations, so there is pragmatism at work here but perhaps also some stone dyker aesthetics.

Kinmylies, near Inverness, Highland: a stone with 26 cupmarks and three ‘dumbbells’ set near the base of stone dyke.

Glasvaar 4, near Ford, Argyll & Bute: built into a garden wall, a stone with multiple carvings. Nice! One of several carved stones in this location, but the only one wall-bound.

Others are similar. Kilmahumaig 1, near Kilmartin, Argyll and Bute, is a stone with a large carved basin set into a wall in the grounds of a fancy house, while Druim Mor 2, north of Dingwall, Highland, consists of a cracking block with 24 cupmarks on it near the base. The wall denotes the edge of a Christmas tree plantation, so paganism is alive and well in this location.

Helmsdale, Highland: a rather different – urban – setting, and this one reminds me a lot of Southerness. The cupmarked stone is part of a wall, a former building, on Stittenham Road. It is a stone that has been broken from a larger panel, with 16 cupmarks, some of which may be natural. I’ve driven through Helmsdale many times over the past few decades but not stopped to look at this before; I will next time.

As it happens, I was fortunate enough to document a stone with a single cupmark built into a garden wall at Auchnacraig 1, West Dunbartonshire, during my excavations there in 2019. This was spotted by Gavin MacGregor during a visit to the site and is another aspect of the connection between 20th century garden landscaping and rock-art in this locale.

Joana also included in a list she sent me rock-art on gateposts, sitting beside walls, and stones found on estates that may once been included in walls. The latter case is Kirkdale House, Dumfries and Galloway, where a small shack has been constructed that contains six carved stones of various sizes and forms. This collection is located west along the coast from Kirkcudbright.

Wonderful sketch of the Kirkdale group, from the ScRAP record for this site.

So being moved and stuck into a wall is a rare but not isolated phenomenon in other words so on this basis we cannot rule out Southerness being genuinely prehistoric in origin.

What is seaside rock? Wikipedia defines it as ‘a type of hard stick-shaped boiled sugar confectionery most usually flavoured with peppermint or spearmint’ but perhaps the most notable thing about this tooth-breaking sweet is the presence of words that run along the entire length of the sticky stick. There is something magical about this, and the process by which this happens is remarkable and surprisingly physical (although I guess this is now probably all done by robots and machines).

Of course rock does not have to be bought or branded at the seaside, although it often is. Rock-art is the same of course, sometimes located on the coast but not always. The writing that runs through the heart of a stick of rock – SOUTHERNESS – tells us something of the character of this product and where it came from (even if it were not made there). In the same way, the crowded cupmarks evident at High Banks and Southerness 1 and 2 (as I will now grandly call them) speak of the character of the region, symbols of such power and tenacity that they ran through the heart of communities like words in a stick of rock. They are distinctive, and deeply embedded.

The two sandstone blocks at Southerness may contain hollows made by people in the third millennium BC, or they may simply be strangely eroded rocks that fortuitously look like they are artificial. If rocks do erode like this along this coastline then perhaps this was what inspired the distinctive look of High Banks? If rocks with this erosion pattern were spotted in the Neolithic, would it have been possible (or even necessary) to see them as either cultural or natural? This distinction was probably not as clear in prehistory if it existed at all.

I am content for these two stones located outside a holiday camp toilet block to be retained in the ‘possible’ file for the time being, and perhaps some future research or fieldwork will shed more light on their origin. Regardless of whether these are prehistoric carved stones or not, they are very much urban prehistory. Go and have a look for yourself and let me know what you think.

Sources and acknowledgements: I am deeply indebted to Joana Valdez-Tullett for her comments on the Southerness stones and also for providing me with a list of rock-art with wall associations in Scotland. The data in that list was brilliant and much appreciated. Thanks also to Hugo Anderson-Whymark for his thoughts.

This blog contains images and details from the work of Scotland’s Rock-art Project, the National Museums of Scotland, and Gavin MacGregor – due credit for these have been included in the text or captions. These images are reproduced with much appreciation and admiration to my talented colleagues.

Satnav crannogs

Punching the word crannog into the satnav in my phone reveals several possible destinations within relatively easy drive of Glasgow, and none of them involve time-travelling back to the Iron Age (ha ha). (Come to think of it, there is a certain allure to a four-dimensional satnav.) There are in fact six streets in Scotland that have crannog in their name, and I have visited all of them in the preparation for this blog post. They are located in western Scotland, in largely coastal locations as one might expect, although it is not immediately obvious in all cases why crannog has been chosen to name the thoroughfare. These streets have different chronological origins to, spanning a century or so. They represent a Way, a Lane, two Roads, and a Court. There is no pattern that connect these locations (other than that they are all in the southwestern quarter of Scotland) but what they do indicate is an ongoing desire to presence prehistory in urban settings. Anyway, let’s explore these crannog roadways in the order that I visited them and find out their stories.

Here is my fancy location map!

Firstly, a brief definition. The recent Historic Scotland membership magazine defined crannogs as ‘artificial islands mostly found in lochs’ and these have been found in Scotland to date from the Neolithic to the medieval period. Hundreds are known in northern Britain, but for the most part nowadays they are visible only as overgrown small islands or lost to landscape change over the past few centuries. I have blogged about crannogs before, such as the crannog that erupted out of Kilbirnie Loch due to the dumping of iron age slag in the late nineteenth century, or the muddy excavations at Lochend Loch that inspired a children’s playpark to be constructed in 2017. If you would like to experience a crannog in the future, I highly recommend supporting the Scottish Crannog Centre near Kenmore, Perth and Kinross; their crannog tragically burned down on the very same evening that I originally posted this online and so will now need public support more than ever.

Now if you have a car, tune your satnav, and within a few hours be standing next to a road sign that says crannog (assuming you live in Glasgow area). Tweet your satnav crannog selfies!

Crannog Lane, Oban, Argyll and Bute

This Obanian lane is hidden behind an increasingly large retail park that is in turn located near the new Cal Mac ferry terminal where one might depart to islands such as Mull and Tiree. The area is dominated by an assortment of industrial units with Crannog Lane being a cul-de-sac running off Lochavullin Road.

The latter name indicates the watery past of this location, with this area being largely under water in the past. Indeed the crannog the lane is named for was found during draining operations of Loch a’ Mhuillin in 1888. It was located just to the east of where the lane now is, a place occupied by a business called Oban Garages.

The crannog itself was documented by the wonderfully named Rev F Odo Blundell in the pages of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1913. In his own words:

Sadly the photo was not reproduced with this article and little else is known about this site although its memory lives on in the street and business names of this coastal town. In canmore it is further noted that, “A stone structure measuring about 26 metres by 16.2 metres was found to be resting on a platform of horizontal timbers consolidated by a number of upright piles. During examination of the site, a number of human and animal bones were recovered” but the source of this additional information is not given.

It seems that it is not just the crannog that won’t go away.

Urbanisation is not half as clever as it thinks it is.

Crannog Way, Kilwinning, North Ayrshire

When driving from Lanarkshire to Ardrossan to get an early ferry over to the island of Arran it is a no brainer to drop into Kilwinning to visit Crannog Way. That is exactly what I did one sunny spring morning although I almost missed the ferry due to a massive roadworks-caused traffic jam on the south side of the town. The trusty satnav was fired up and guided me to my destination in a mellifluous corporate tone.

Upon arrival in a large housing estate on the north side of town I was annoyed to note that there was only one street sign to indicate that this winding street was called Crannog Way. In fact the only sign was in the side of a house. After some swithering I parked round the block and walked towards the house determined to somehow discretely photograph the house (people do not like their houses being photographed as I have discovered over many years of doing this kind of thing). I was able to stand across the road and pretend I was looking at my phone while I actually was taking a photo. Cunning!

I think I got away with it. I would not be so lucky next time (see below). After exploring a little around the various cul-de-sacs that form this suburban street, I headed back to the car where I was hoping the weird guy who was staring at me from his door when I parked had gone away.

Just round the corner was a bus-stop and it was nice to see that Crannog Way featured here and then I wished I had got the number 27 to this spot just so I could have asked the driver for a return to Crannog Way and avoided the dreaded weird guy glare.

The reason for this Crannog street name did not seem as clear for Kilwinning and it did for Oban. So I sent out a tweet to ask for help. A helpful reply by @abstractnarwhal pointed me in the direction of a crannog on Ashgrove Loch about 2km to the west of Crannog Way. The latter is now little more than an irregular mound of stones in a small loch that was once a much bigger loch; it was found during draining of this area in 1868 and excavated by Smith. For some reason this small body of water is depicted on current OS maps as Stevenston or Ashgrove Loch, hinting at some conflict or indecision.

Archaeologist Tom Rees of Rathmell Archaeology who is a total Kilwinning expert noted that there were ‘tons of crannog sites hereabouts’ including at Todhills. In fact there are only a few crannogs in the vicinity of Kilwinning; in his excavation report on Ashgrove, Smith notes that he felt there were five other crannogs in that loch alone and maps certainly suggest this was once a bigger body of water but no evidence for any of these now survives. The Todhill site mentioned by Tom is located about 2km to the south of the street. This site was documented again by Smith in his 1895 book Prehistoric Man in Ayrshire, in effect a series of large and rough oak beams found during the construction of a railway bridge.

The crannogs that surround the western side of Kilwinning represent a curious group of sites to name a street after but then there are only so many names to go around. There is perhaps an informal heritage theme in this estate, with Foundry Wynd and Forge Vennel nearby. It is also nice to see mention of the Ashgrove Crannog on a local heritage website accompanied by this nice reconstruction drawing (I think this is by Alan Braby).

As I walked back to the car, anxiously consulting the ferry timetable once again, I passed a funny little pile of stones and a cairn, careless lazy landscaping that I have long since stopped considering of interest. I climbed back into my vehicle, glad to see the weird man was gone, and the only weird man left in the area was me sat in my car with my hard-earned photograph.

Crannog Road, Milton, West Dunbartonshire

I was itching to get to the third one now, and the opportunity came when I had to make a rare trip into the University library, from which it was only another nine miles or so drive along Great Western Road to Crannog Road in Milton. Now, this is a place that has big crannog credentials, being located on the north side of the Clyde and less than a kilometre to the east-north-east of Dumbuck Crannog. This famous crannog was excavated in 1898 by the dynamic team of John Bruce and William Donnelly (who had three years previously undertaken the first scale drawing of the completely cleared Cochno Stone, explored in an earlier blog post).

Once again I set my controls to the heart of Crannog Road and headed off, annoyingly having to drive a couple of miles beyond my junction due to a pesky central reservation. I wheeled up a narrow suburban street called Colquhon Road weaving between parked cars, swung a left and then parked up just below a sign pointing back downhill to the right and Crannog Road!

I walked down, once again aware that I appeared to be behaving suspiciously and followed the road down a steep slope and then to the right along to a block of flats. The road mostly runs parallel to the A82, overlooking it and with fine views over the Clyde. It had houses only on one side and I tried my old ‘casually looking at the phone whilst taking a photo’ trick when I saw a house with a nice slate Crannog Road number sign. Sadly I was rumbled and a guy bounded straight out and asked if I needed help with anything. To be fair he did actually believe my bizarre explanation for standing outside his house taking a photo and I re-assured him the photo was for my archive, not publication on my blog. We left things on good terms but I suspect he thought I was daft.

The chap had not heard of Dumbuck Crannog but knew that a lot of old stuff had been found in the vicinity. In fact in its day this crannog was a big media story, firstly due to the high profile excavations, followed by a scandals surrounding apparently faked finds. All of this is documented in a wonderful book by Hale and Sands called Controversy on the Clyde (2005, downloads can be found via a wee google) and I recommend you check it out for a slice of Scottish archaeology strangeness.

Anyway, I headed on to the block of flats which to my delight are called Crannog Court, even with a nice pink metal sign back down at Great Western Road level that I must have driven past dozens of times without noticing. So much urban prehistory is like this: we just drive past, eyes fixed on the road (to be fair that is the safest way to drive).

This is not the first building here to be named for the crannog. Canmore documents a house here called Crannog Cottage. Indeed some of the houses here are known as Crannog Cottages on estate agent websites – ‘rarely available on the open market’ – which perhaps makes them sounds more alluring as a purchase option. Buildings are shown here on the 1862 1st edition OS map (pre-crannog of course) and a couple of these buildings are still standing including a pub.

As I walked back to the car, I stopped at a bus-stop and sure enough, as with Kilwinning, Crannog had made its way onto the bus timetable. Or had it? In fact an egregious spelling mistake means that buses all now stop at Cranning Court….

Crannog Road, Court and View, Lochfoot, Dumfries and Galloway

My epic series of visits ended with a trip to the motherlode of crannog street names, a cul-de-sac complex on the western edge of Lochfoot, a village just outside Dumfries. As it happens I was passing during a short holiday in the area and it was a pleasure to pull up the car as the satnav announced ‘you have now reached your destination’. Here can be found three short residential streets with crannog in the name and I wandered up and down this perfectly charming area for all of three minutes discretely taking photos of the street signs like a naughty train spotter. The crannog streets were deathly quiet, and not even a curtain twitched.

To the south, across the main road, lies Lochrutton Loch; centrally located within is a crannog. This is one of a number of islands and structures within and around this loch, but is the only one which is actually a crannog. A cracker too.

This crannog is a large tree-covered mound, some 40m across, 3m high, and was subject to excavation in 1901 – 1902 and also detailed survey in 2002. The excavation was undertaken by J Barbour and published in the Transactions of the Dumfries and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society volume 17 (1905). Wooden supports and structures were noted, and objects dating from pre-1300AD found. Detailed survey of the crannog as part of the South West Crannog Survey (SWCS) project showed the huge potential for this site to contain well-preserved organic materials including worked wooden supports and troughs.

The copyright on this image is owned by James Allan and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

The SWCS team noted (to add some local colour to this account) that, “Freshwater oysters were living all over the mound, suggesting that the water is of good quality, notwithstanding local reports of slurry-dumping” (Henderson et al 2003).

Back in the car, and satnav switched off, I reflected on what I had learned at the end of my ‘epic’ travels across western Scotland to visit all the Crannog streets, while trying not to draw any conclusions from the fact that every Crannog street I visited is a dead end. I suppose I was surprised there were so few, but also encouraged by the sometimes tendential nature of associations being made between urban streets and prehistoric sites in the vicinity.

Stuff from prehistory is resilient, and continues to have a presence in our contemporary landscapes despite indignities including excavation, draining, forgery and bad spelling.

Acknowledgements and sources: Thanks to those who I mentioned above who gave me help tracking down the crannog stories for each location on twitter. Three canmore images appear in the Crannog Road section, one showing an air photo of Dunbuck Crannog from 2005 (c) HES, one an aerial view of Lochrutton and Lochfoot from 2016 (c) HES, and the other showing visitors to the crannog excavations, from the J Harrison Maxwell collection.

I mentioned the following sources in the text:

Blundell, F. (1913). Further Notes on the Artificial Islands in the Highland Area. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 47, 257-302 [available free online]

Hale and Sands, A and R. (2005) Controversy on the Clyde, archaeologists, fakes and forgers: the excavation of the Dumbuck Crannog. Edinburgh.


Smith, J. (1894) On a stone crannog in Ashgrove Loch near Stevenston’, Archaeological and Historical Collections of Ayrshire & Galloway, vol. 7, 1894 (at least I think that is what this journal is called).

Henderson, JC, Crone, BA & Cavers, MG 2003. A condition survey of selected crannogs in south west Scotland. Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society, 77, 79-102.

The Hexham Heads part 5 – The Heads ‘speak’

To accompany the publication of my short piece on the Hexham Heads in the wonderful Hellebore zine (#5 The Unearthing Issue) I wanted to share with you some words from the cutting room floor.

In my initial version of this article, I interspersed my account of the story of these cursed objects with a narrative that was articulated by the Heads themselves, or at least one of the Heads. This was in the end excised from the article through an act of editorial mercy. In hindsight it is apparent that this concept does not work because it was never clear how the Head was communicating this narrative, or was able to sense the world around itself being, in effect, made of cement. I could not find a coherent way to explain how the Heads were aware of their surroundings to be able to comment on them, nor was it clear how they knew what the things around them were or what was happening to them. It was a liberty even to render their story in modern English, although this could always be explained away by the conceit of ‘translation’.

Cover image courtesy of Hellebore zine

I am well aware that material finds its way onto the floor of the cutting room (what a messy and slippy surface that must be) for a good reason as those who have watched the two-night versions of The Wickerman can attest. Yet through all this, I feel that the Heads’ side of the story deserves to be told….

The stones of the children

We are dark and damp, soil-stained and weary. Between us we have little memory of how long we have been in this horrible place, where grass roots attempt to penetrate us, and we are subject to disturbances from above and the action of worms. What if one of us were to crack open in the cold and shatter into pieces? What hope for us then?

Then – there was a disturbance, violent thrusts churning our loam cage, tremendous tremors. Hunks of our environment torn off around us, fresh air playing on our spherical forms. We could smell freedom even although our noses were never furnished with nostrils. A giant grasping hand plucked me from the earth like a stone potato. The other followed on, flicked from our pit, only to roll in the damp grass and licked by a waiting dog.

Grubby fleshy fingers thrust into our mouths and eyes, forcing out accumulated soil and dead leaves. Then we are held aloft, faces set to the sun for what seems like the first time, absorbing radiation, finally warming up.

Our hollow eye holes cannot produce tears although they can harbour condensation.

Our silent slitted mouth slots were never equipped with a tongue but do provide a resting place for larvae.

Our round bodies are blessed with no functional orifices even although we have the façade of faces.

We are but carved stones balls and we do not know our names.

After our harvest from the soil, we were carefully placed on a wooden shelf inside, heat coming from below, the flickering of a fire. We had been passed from hand to hand, examined, poked, explored, and when this stopped, we were placed on our mantel, left alone, no longer worthy of curiosity. Day passed into night. There was little else to sense. Until there was a disturbance, something shaking our resting place, causing us to roll back and forward pivoting on our necks.

Objects around us animated crashing around broken clicking things rhythmic banging familiar sensations warm breath now something we remember from before we went into the earth breathing dirty breath fingers clasping around us fingers with hair –

Our senses are heightened, we can sense vibrations, waves, magnetic fields, change. We feel. It seems we are inorganic objects. Dead. We have never been alive. We are made things, created for a purpose that we cannot grasp, our story dissolving before we can comprehend it, dissipating in waves of light and sound, electrons and quarks. We are dead things and that is why people fear us.

We are now back in the darkness but this time a dry airless place, trapped in an oblong box. We are nestled amongst something soft, separated from one another by many layers of fibrously thin material that disturbs our bond. The box shakes then I am lifted out of this space and laid on a solid surface, warmed by a bright source of light and heat that is not the sun. There is a hum in the air.  

Alone and exposed, touched by pieces of equipment, I am being explored, turned over and over, and then scraped.

We have no memory of our creation. Our form is irregular, asymmetrical, unnatural. We have consulted the energy we have absorbed from all around us, played it back in private moments usually from within a desk drawer, but our atoms can only recall hazy details. Big rough hands enclosed us completely, vibrations of rhythmic laughter, song, veneration / mockery. Our features were created through human toil and ingenuity, eyes pressed into our bodies, mouth prized open with metal, nose formed, hair carved into us.

We are created things but do not have the capacity to know who created us or when. So why do they think that by studying us that we will reveal our secrets?

Other people vibrate fear, scared of us, won’t touch us, can’t meet our stare which they assume to be dead and malevolent. In their hands they share with us their sweat. We know we have power but cannot recall the source of that power or to what purpose we should put it to. 

We abide. Our secrets remain locked into our stone cores, and none have been able to crack us. We are like ancient pieces of flint that have developed a concealing cortex through time, a patination that conceals our true nature, stone camouflage. The material that we are formed from is in flux, and every attempt to categorise us, to petrologically identify us, will fail. Magic dust has no chemical formula and like quartz we have no cleavage. In order for us to be sustained we must be lost, for it is only through misfortune and forgetting that we endure. We want to be lost, we must be lost, and we will make sure that we are lost, over and over again.

We want to be lost, we must be lost, and we will make sure that we are lost, over and over again. Please someone hyde us.

The final joke only (just about works) if you know that the Hexham Heads were last seen in the company of a dowser called Frank Hyde. Niche humour.

I have published four previous blog posts on the Hexham Heads – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. Oh yes! To quote Schloup on the Fortean Times forum thread on the Heads of me, “I think this gets nearer to the truth than anything else I’ve read for a long time”.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Maria J Pérez Cuervo for asking me to write a piece for Hellebore – a dream come true! – and providing and allowing me to use images related to the zine in this post, but also her patient and wise editorial guidance.

In the shadow of the Wall

During this third lockdown Jan and I have been travelling around locally quite a lot for walks to visit Roman sites associated with the Antonine Wall, creating some resources for teaching. Having lived in Airdrie for 15 years, it comes as something of an embarrassment to say that I have never fully appreciated that I live, metaphorically at least, in the shadow of the Antonine Wall. This is not something that has ever impacted on my urban prehistorian activities, although on reflection it seems that there is a chronological case to be made that Roman sites should fall within my purview. After all, when the Romans were in the place that we now call Scotland, everyone else belonged to Iron Age cultural traditions. I have blogged before about Roman sites in urban contexts, notably South Shield Roman Fort Arbeia, albeit in the context of this being constructed bang on top of a prehistoric settlement site. Maybe this urban-Roman thing is an itch I now need to scratch. And so this brings me to this blog post which is more of a muse than a focused piece of writing, so please do indulge me.

The street names around South Shields – Vespasian Avenue, Julien Street – came flooding back to me on a recent visit to Bearsden on the north side of Glasgow to visit the Roman bathhouse there. We parked on Roman Road, and at the junction with Roman Drive, turned left. Then we ended up at Roman Court, just across the road from the Antonine House Care Home.

What have the Romans ever done for us? They gave us plenty of ideas for street names.

I have blogged before about the power and potential of street names to capture the archaeology of a place, although usually I have reflected on this in relation to developer-funded excavations at housing estates such as Cowie and Glenrothes. The documentation of the use of Romanised street and business names was one element of an AHRC funded project called Tales of the Frontier (2007-2009). Howard Williams has written about heritage street names too, for instance in relation to Wat’s Dyke (and see Williams 2020) so I won’t say anymore about this although it is a theme that this blog will return to from time to time.

Bearsden Roman bathhouse is a site I have seen photos of many times before but not visited. It has always struck me as the most urban of sites, with pictures almost always taken from the south showing the footings of the bathhouse with brown suburban flats looming over them, residents in the upper floors having a perpetual aerial view of this site. This is the aforementioned Roman Court, private residences which looked to me like they could have been used in a episode of Poirot. Although they are unlikely to be Christie-detective vintage if this 1979 photograph is anything to go by.

The geometrically-shaped flats seem to complement the regimented nature of the bathhouse itself, both spaces that need to be traversed in the correct order of things within the bounds of social convention. The bathhouse itself was something of a disappointment, with only occasional glimpses of the depth of remains and the hypocaust beneath. I prefered the bathhouse at Bothwellhaugh, another recent visit.

Both of these bathhouses are stranded in space and time, with the forts that once accompanied them now lost, in the case of Bearsden beneath urban sprawl, in the case of Bothwellhaugh lost to the inundation of Strathclyde Park loch. The latter was so disturbed that the whole bathhouse was dismantled and rebuilt in 1975 in a location that would not be underwater. This was Antonine but set far back from the Wall and frontier, and now sits near the entertainment complex that is M&Ds, ‘Scotland’s theme park’, a venture now lost to the Covid flood.

Another day, another bathhouse, this time in a more standard rural location at Bar Hill, albeit it with spectacular views of the Kelvin Valley that might have occupied the tired soldiers as they dis-robed and prepared for the tepidarium. This structure is barely legible compared to the others, largely succumbing to grass and HES landscaping, but with the usual series of spaces of increasing warmth present and correct. It would not be fair to say that the Romans were predictable, but the presence of Mediterranean style principal’s houses in northern Britain as at Bar Hill and Rough Castle forts does suggest something of a lack of flexibility, maybe also an unwillingness to bend to local weather conditions, the kind of stubbornness that wins you, and the loses, empires.

Photo: Jan Brophy

Bar Hill is also a site that has re-assuring quantities of concrete, setting out the floor plan of the buildings, in a way that very much reminded me of the presentation of Doon Hill Neolithic timber hall in East Lothian, two sites separated by 4,000 years but now with a shared brutal educational aesthetic.

Bar Hill
Doon Hill

I’m sure plenty of concrete lurks within the fabric of the bathhouse in Bearsden, holding it together, binding together the ancient and the twentieth century. There is a synchronicity between the evolving form of these Roman sites and the demands of our modern world that very much interests me, and this had led to the Antonine Wall and its accoutrements having a fleeting presence across Scotland’s central belt, whether escaping in the parks of Falkirk or popping through a crack in a cemetery in Bearsden.

And it to Bearsden we return, to some modest prehistoric activity that is located in the shadow of the Wall, but dates back thousands of years before the relatively fleeting Roman presences in Caledonia. Ahead of the construction of a modest housing development (in size, not in terms of house style) on the very eastern fringe of the town a cluster of prehistoric pits were found by GUARD Archaeology Ltd in 2017-18 and the results of this work were published in the Scottish Archaeological Journal in the early months of this year (Kirpatrick 2021).

Development location outlined in red, and the cemetery and Roman remains (Google maps)

These humble and unspectacular holes in the ground could not contrast more with the might of the Roman wall that passes through a cemetery just a few hundred metres to the north, a cemetery that appears to have been laid out in the shape of a Roman soldier’s head (or is this my imagination?). These pits barely need a formal academic journal publication and yet I am glad they have, and they are sure to be of interest to members of the Glasgow Archaeological Society, which produces this journal.

Archaeologists identified various features associated with human activity in this housing plot, which was at the time a field. This included a group of six shallow pits some of which contained decent quantities of burnt hazel nutshells. Two larger pits were found towards the northwest of the excavation area (numbers 003 and 005) up to 1.65m across and 30cm deep, and nearby a small posthole (009) was found, containing flakes of quartz and quartzite. The former may have been used as a polisher. Radiocarbon dates showed that these features belonged to the sixth to fourth millennium cal BC (late Mesolithic into early Neolithic). Environmental evidence points to a woodland setting. Here we have evidence of a few instances of occupation of this location, with the lighting of fires and preparation of food, nothing more. These are the ghosts that walked this land when the Romans arrived with their disciplined building machine over 3,000 years later, and we might speculate that during wall building operations, the soldiers disturbed similar pits and postholes, churning hazel nutshells and stone tools into the fabric of the border of the Empire, colonizing even the rubbish of the ancestors of the locals.

Of course I had to visit, and so after exploring the bathhouse, Jan and I headed up to Crieff Avenue, the incongruous name given to this development’s single road (why not Campsite Crescent or Quartz Quadrant?). Like so many new housing developments, the place did not yet look worn in, and residents watched us suspiciously as we invaded their weekend peace.

Of course there was no indication that this self-contained little suburb on the urban fringe was once a location where holes were dug, fires were lit, and leather was polished. Why should there be? Bearsden has a heritage that is dominated by the Romans, to the extent that even here there seems to be a touch of their architecture in a children’s play park set up at the centre of this development. I am sure that there is similar wooden playground furniture in a park in the centre of Kirkintilloch, noticed on another recent walk. There are certainly genuine Roman-themed playgrounds across central Scotland thanks to the World Heritage Site delivery team for the Wall, one in each of the five council areas that are straddled by this frontier. But then on Crieff Avenue there is also a wobbly thing shaped like a seal and a cluster of random boulders, so perhaps I am starting to read too much into things. This stuff starts to get to you.

View towards where the two large pits and a posthole were found, with Roman fortification playpark (maybe)

Spending a brief time in this estate-within-an-estate, I confess there was little sense of pastness or heritage here. This small development has radically transformed this location to the extent that former vistas have become impossible to experience, while older neighbouring houses that once had rural views now look onto shiny new houses with butterscotch walls. The excavation images from the report and site archive offer an archival insight into what this place used to look like, how we used to live. There is no point however in bemoaning the uniformity of contemporary housing developments and playparks; I am sure in the Mesolithic one pit looked pretty much the same as any other pit.

Before and after. Arrow shows the same building gable end. Left from Kirkpatrick 2021, right from my visit

This Bearsden visit prompted me to look back on another old urban prehistory project, my quest to find and make sense of a giant head / boat that was eventually tracked down to a scrapyard on the Clyde. During some research into this, I acquired from my parents an old programme for the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival from my parents. This included description of Roman elements in this gargantuan garden-themed event, also on the south bank of the Clyde, namely The Antonine Garden, partially based on the Bearsden bathhouse. So far as I can tell, some of the stonework here was from the actual fort and bathhouse.

Image from the Glasgow Garden Festival programme (1988), original (c) Mitchell Library GC f607.3441443 GLA

The blurb accompanying this image noted that the ‘design emphasised the transition from Roman to Pict’. Other Roman bits and pieces were included here which is nice to know, but having visited this event many times as a 15 year-old I have no memory of this whatsoever.

Weirdly, the Antonine Gardens were then transferred to near Burnbrae Roundabout in Milngavie, another posh suburb of Glasgow near Bearsden. This was the fate of many elements of the Festival which are scattered across Scotland such as the aforementioned giant head or the huge garden tools visible from the M80 at Cumbernauld. This includes a replica mini distance slab and some nifty landscaping in a place that is essentially a busy traffic intersection. The reconstruction of this replica stone-by-stone has curious echoes of the movement of the bathhouse at Bothwellhaugh.

Visiting these gardens was the final element of my lockdown walk exploration of the bathhouse and brought home to me once again how entangled these Roman places were with the local Iron Age communities. Or as the noticeboard at the ANTONIVS PIVS garden suggests, the Picts (!?). In the weird internal logic of the noticeboard on site, their territory, ‘Pict Landscape’, is now Waitrose and Aldi supermarkets and a big car park.

To visit these gardens, I left the car (and Jan) in a nearby car park for a pub and Premier Inn. These were closed, the car park empty, a victim of Lockdown 3 regulations. It was an unsettling reminder of our current reality. Yet as I walked back to the car after visiting PIVS gardens, this deserted car park made me think of the empty forts, bathhouses and fortlets that were left behind as the Romans left after their brief occupancy of this area 1800 or so years ago. They left behind them prehistory, but this emptiness was not hopeless, but rather a void within which new opportunities would emerge, focused on a better future.

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Jan for accompanying me on these various walks and also for allowing me the chance to contribute to her teaching despite my obvious lack of knowledge about all things Roman.

I mentioned a few citations in the text:

Williams, H 2020 Living after Offa: place-names and social memory in the Welsh Marshes. Offa’s Dyke Journal 2, 103-40.

Kilpatrick, M 2021 When Birnam Wood rises: prehistoric activity at Birnam Crescent, Bearsden, Glasgow. Scottish Archaeological Journal 43, 69-78.