A True Story from the Stone Mountain

I grew up in South Wales on a blue hill; my bedroom looked north towards the mountain of stone and Mynydd Twmbarlwm -the twmp. When I was a child the twmp of Twmbralwm occupied a special place in my young psyche. Looming above the valley below drawing the horizon into the forground -dark and haunted as the sun sank, green and verdant when it beat down from the clear summer sky.

twmbarlwm

As I grew I asked about the strange shape of the far/near horizon. The general theory amongst the kids my age was that it was a Norman fort or a prehistoric burial mound, some also said that it was where the Romans kept an eye on the subjugated but ever rebellious Silures -the tribe who gave their name to the nearby Roman fort of Isca Silures (which later became the birthplace of Arthur Machen, Caerleon).  It turned out that all of these theories were right and that the site had been in use from the Iron Age through to the Norman invasion. Until relatively recently it was still a site of a pilgrimage of sorts for local people on Good Friday.

Whilst I found the history of the site interesting my young mind was turned more and more by the folklore surrounding the mountain. Folklore that was, in its entirety, dark and grim and therefore of great fascination for a prepubescent boy such as I was. When I was 10 my mother, who worked in the giftshop of the local museum, brought me home a pair of books by local author Alan Roderick: Ghosts of Gwent and Folklore of Gwent. I was thrilled by these books and read them until the binding crumbled and they were but a collection loose leaves. The volume on folklore had plenty to say about Twmbarlwm.

According to Roderick in the early 1800s (the exact date escapes me though I think it was the 1830s) a local antiquarian led a team of navies up the mountain to excavate the mysterious mound. It was a clear summer’s day as they climbed from the village of Risca yet as they approached the summit the sky rapidly darkened as storm clouds rolled from all directions. As the team neared the summit lighting began to strike the ground all around the twmp causing the superstitious navvies to flee and the excavation to be abandoned. To the best of my knowledge there still hasn’t been an archaeological investigation into the mound itself.

Some years after the aborted excavation it seems that people noticed that the number of honey bees in Britain had dropped drastically. Their whereabouts were soon discovered when thousands upon thousands of bee corpses were discovered to be covering the twmp and the top of the mountain. As if all the bees in Britain had migrated there and fought to the death.

Then there were also the tales of missing children on the mountain. In stories dating back to, at least, the 18th Century children playing on the slopes of the mountain hear the sound of music, and no I don’t mean Julie Andrews, drifting on the breeze.  One of the children inevitably goes to find the source of the music and is never seen again.

Like I said, dark stuff.

As I grew into a teenager the place continued to dominate my mental landscape and, as a young teen, friends and I would cycle up the mountain and go camping on its slopes. Then I grew older and discovered the various alternative subcultures that thrived in the local area I began experimenting with all the usual things that kids experimented with at that age -drink, drugs, and as much sex as possible.

Being as this was South Wales one of the main recreational drugs that we experimented with were the local mushrooms -Psilocybe semilanceata or Liberty Caps. ‘Camping trips’ soon became a regular feature of autumn and early winter for me and my friends. We would spend days wandering the fields picking mushrooms in order to make insanely strong ‘brews’ from hundreds, sometimes thousands, of the strange little mushrooms. We would then go camping in the coniferous woodlands below the twmp and spend an evening expanding our consciousness. In fact I had my most powerful and vivid hallucinogenic experience on that mountain, at a friend’s bachelor party, which had me seeing clockwork maggots crawling red hot from the embers of the fire, stars swirling in the night sky above our clearing and figures on horseback ducking impossibly through the trees around us.

These experiences were all fun and games as I completely understood that the things I was seeing and hearing around me were the product of imagination and Wales’ most famous botanical product. However one evening we did have a genuinely strange experience. An experience that has many explanations, none of which are satisfactory.

It was maybe 17 years ago that this occurred and it was right at the end of mushroom season so it would have been early November. We had the last of our super brews bottled and were just waiting for an excuse to indulge. Just such an excuse cropped up, though I forget what it was, and so we decided to drive up the mountain one Friday night. Five of us drove up the mountain to start setting up the camp at around 9 o’clock in the evening. Four of us got a fire going, gathered enough firewood so that we wouldn’t need to gather any whilst we were altered, and the fifth returned to town to pick up the last of our party who had been working in a local pub.

Well, it turned out that our bartender friend had gotten home from work and fallen asleep on the sofa. Our driver having something of a crush on her decided to wait, rather creepily now I think about it, outside her house until he could wake her up.

Whilst we were waiting we opened a beer and those that smoked rolled a couple of spliffs to pass the time. After a while of sitting around chatting we inevitably experienced periods of quiet where our gazes were drawn hypnotically to the fire. It was during one of these lulls in conversation that we heard twigs snapping in the forest around us. Now bear in mind that it was approaching midnight in November and we were a good half an hours walk away from the nearest houses. So the sound of multiple people walking in circles around our camp did unnerve us slightly.

We shone the one torch we had into the narrow gaps between the oh so straight trees around us but we couldn’t see anyone, even if we shone the torch where just a moment before we had heard a twig snap. Over and over this happened and then, as we were starting to get seriously freaked out and called into the night “Hello, hello, who the fuck’s there?” We heard it. A child giggling -first to one side of us, then the other. A high pitched giggle that would sound right and natural on a primary school playground but at midnight in November far from the nearest houses sounded decidedly unnatural.

Those giggles were the final straw and we poured water over our fire and struck out for the road. As we walked in single file following Ryan, the only one of us who had thought to bring a torch, the sounds of people running around us continued, as did the giggling. It would get nearer then farther making us jump and urging us on until we were as close to running as we dared in the dark.

It was such a relief when we finally cleared the trees and bundled out into an open field bathed silver by the moon. We walked rapidly away from the woods glancing back over our shoulders at the giggling woods as little voices rang out “Goodbye! Goodbye!”

That was the last time we went camping on Twmbarlwm.

In Laws and Old Stuff

The In Laws have been up visiting this week and so we yesterday took them to see the Hunterian museum at the University of Glasgow. I was rather miffed that the Pictish carved stone balls seem to have been removed from display as I think they are probably the most enigmatic artefact in the museum’s collection. 😦
As C’s mam is a nurse we also went to see the anatomy museum but I’m not going to share the pictures I took there (a two headed baby and the testes of an “imbecilic dwarf”), don’t worry. 😀

A Psychogeographic Jaunt Through the Neolithic(via the A92)

Going through some old internetty bits and bobs of mine and came across this. It was part of a project I submitted for my Landscape Archaeologies Past & Present course that I did at uni a few years ago. The Neolithic sites here, two stone circles and an excarnation site, are in a thoroughly modern setting. The Balfarg stones are in the middle of a housing development, the excarnation site is next to the busy A92 and the Balbirnie stones were picked up and moved to make way for a road. So it’s a very modern Neolithic that we have here in Scotland.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balfarg

Big in Ugarit

Ever wondered what people rocked out to in the Levant during the Bronze Age? Of course you have! Open Culture have posted an interesting wee article about cuneiform tablets that were excavated during the 1950s at Ugarit. Ugarit was a Levantine city that was abandoned/destroyed at the end of the Late Bronze Age during the LBA collapse. The LBA collapse saw the collapse of many of the great civilisations of the ancient Near East through a mixture of climate change, war fare, competition for resources, and ever widening economic inequality.

Transcribed by Dr Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, professor of Assyriology at the University of California
Transcribed by Dr Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, professor of Assyriology at the University of California

The reasons for the LBA collapse are frighteningly similar to the ones which we face today and so I think this music reaching us across the millennia has a particularly haunting quality. It’s an echo from a civilisation that couldn’t rise to the challenges we face and unless we get our collective shit together perhaps all that will remain of our achievements will be a song across time.

And if we don’t get it together let’s just hope it’s not Justin Bieber that survives…

Here’s a lyre interpretation of the song by Michael Levy.

 

Prometheus Bland

I went to see Prometheus

Prometheus shouldn’t have been a good film. It should have been a fucking fantastic film. With Ridley Scott directing and an absolutely cracking cast. However despite this and despite having some mind blowing special effects and an overarching plot that promises epic philosophical and ethical exploration it is let down sorely by one thing. Well, one thing and two people. The script and the people, Damon Lindelof and Jon Sphaits, who wrote it.

Overall the script was clunky and seemed to me to be a rehash of a rejected 1950’s B movie. The actors all deserve credit for managing to work their way through it as well as they did. The script is full of major plot holes, cod philosophy and so many basic scientific(and archaeological) inaccuracies that anyone with a high school education should have been wincing all the way through. Character development is nearly non-existent, aside from the character of David played by Michael Fassbender, so it is difficult to find any sympathy for any of the characters. The characters almost all act in a completely unfathomable way, even David who is the most developed character by far.

But it is the simple scientific, and archaeological, fuck ups that really irritated the fuck out of me. I’m not concerned with ‘realism’ when it comes to things that we don’t have today and so need bullshit explanations but when it is things that are available on wiki-fucking-pedia there is absolutely no excuse. Sorry, no fucking excuse.

For starters we are told that the crew have been asleep for a little over two years yet the nearest star to Earth is something like 4 light years away so they must have broken the speed of light to get there. A pretty remarkable advance for the next 70-80 years. But then we are told that they a visiting a galactic cluster that has a star in it around which orbits a planet with a moon. So the planet, sorry moon, we are visiting is in a different galaxy? And they got there in 2 years? And this galaxy, nay this entire galactic fucking cluster, only has one star with a planet? WTF????

Then there is the archaeological stuff that was just absurd. At the beginning of the film we are told that we are on the Isle of Skye at an archaeological dig. We see Noomi Rapace hard at work making a discovery and sending a fellow archaeologist to call Dr. Holloway, hereafter Annoying American Dude(AAD) ‘quickly’. Said archaeologist rushes out of the cave and shouts down the hill to AAD who is hard at work sieving some soil samples(meinne gotte! Some actual archaeology!). AAD quickly throws his sieve to the floor and dashes up the hillside because you have to be quick off the mark to catch archaeology… Anyway, AAD gets to the cave where Noomi Rapace has found a wall full of cave paintings in the style of Lascaux. “Have you dated it?” AAD asks, and here I am willing to suspend disbelief and accept that there has been some super fast and portable means of radiometric, or other technique, dating developed in the 80 years between now and then. The response though “Yes, 35,000 years”. 35,000 years? W.T.F??? The earliest evidence for human occupation in Scotland goes back maybe 10,500 years. 35,000 years ago Scotland, and therefore Skye, was under a sheet of ice a kilometre thick. It was uninhabitable. Also bear in mind that the paintings at Lascaux date back around 17,500 years.

Seriously. Hollywood. There are plenty of folk out there with archaeology degrees. Just pay one of us to give your script the once over. As it goes the film comes across as something produced by the SyFy channel but with better effects and an expensive cast who are wasted on a clunky script written by morons who deserve to have their livers eaten by birds.

It is a pretty film mind…

Edited to add: Lol, can’t believe I missed this one 😀

The “History” Channel

Ancient Aliens…

I heard about this show not long after it first aired. First through the meme surrounding ‘ancient astronaut theorist’ Giorgio A. Tsoukaloshair and then later through various archaeologists collectively exclaiming “you whaaaaaa!” I just had to watch it and thankfully some kind soul has uploaded the entire thing to Youtube.

How the people at the History Channel can call themselves that with a straight face is beyond belief. I was considering upgrading my TV package to include the History Channel but having seen this there is no way I want to pay for this mince.

The stupid seriously hurts. Watch it if you dare…

 

The Rural Dérive, the Bimble, Bodding Aboot

I have recently been spending a lot of time, probably more than is healthy tbh, thinking about the application of psychogeographical technique to landscape archaeology. I’m going to talk here, briefly, about two ways in which I think that the technique of the dérive could be applied to exploring, interpreting and understanding archaeological landscapes. Also how this technique could be used to help the landscape archaeologist move out of their comfort zone and begin to see the landscape from a completely new, and hopefully quite alien, perspective. Whilst this new perspective will not be that of the people who have previously inhabited those landscapes it is a step towards shedding preexistent biases and expectations, or at least being more acutely aware of these in order to compensate for them in their analysis of the landscape.

I should state that my thinking here is concerned mostly with understanding the prehistoric landscape. Whilst these ideas could as easily be applied for more modern landscapes they would need be applied only slightly differently.

The first application I would like to discuss is the directed dérive. By this I mean a dérive that has fixed start and end points, and possibly points between the two, but where the route between points is dictated by the landscape and the archaeological flâneur and their interactions. The flâneur must move between points being guided by the topography surrounding them rather than by established paths and field or property boundaries. Following natural inclines, river and stream paths, cutting across cliff tops.

As well as offering the potential for discovering new paths through the landscape there is also the chance to, should we take extant monuments as our fixed points, approach these monuments from an entirely new direction. both literally and figuratively. Creative use of a GPS and a refusal of using maps means that the relationship one creates with the landscape is automatically outwith our normal realm of interaction. Especially in an unfamiliar setting. By programming the set points into a gps and not utilising the map function we are only aware of distance and direction. The topography emerges then as we move within the landscape.

By performing the dérive like this we can investigate whether monuments that, when viewed via traditional cartography, appear to have a connection actually elicit this connection when viewed from a human perspective. The temporal flâneur that is the landscape archaeologist(the psycho-archaeologist?) can reinterpret monuments and the links they have with their landscapes by removing from their interpretation the more objective tools traditionally employed in looking at the landscape. By moving within the landscape, rather than over it as empirical observer, it is perfectly possible that where once we saw alignments with landscape features they may evaporate, or new ones emerge.

The second application of the dérive incorporates the archery practice of roving. Roving, or stump archery, is the act of walking through the landscape picking targets as you go and practicing archery upon them. This is less to do with the investigation of relationships within the landscape than with changing our perception of the landscape, especially ones with which we are familiar.

This video below is quite a nice example of roving.

 Following this method one would again change their interaction with the landscape to incorporate the ‘game’ of finding and shooting stumps. The use of a portable ‘stump’, as in the video, could quite easily contribute to finding new ways of looking at and interacting with the land.

I’ll admit that this is perhaps rather tenuous but again the use of roving would mean that the flâneur is interacting with the landscape in an entirely new manner and is again moving within, rather than over, the landscape. This is something that I think is vital if we are to try and understand how the landscape affected people in the past and the different ways in which people can interact with their landscape.

This doesn’t mean that we should move away from rigorous survey work but that we should add ‘going for a bod about’ or a bit of a bimble to our tool box. Aiming to move out of our normal way of interacting with the landscape to better understand it.

Christopher Tilley, Swedish Megaliths and Police Violence

One of the courses I have opted for this semester is Landscape Archaeologies Past and Present, a look at various approaches to landscape and the importance of understanding how people in the past have interacted with and perceived the landscape. As part of that course we have to give a presentation on a paper by an archaeologist of prominence in the field. The paper I was given to talk about was Art, Architecture, Landscape[Neolithic Sweden] by Christopher Tilley in Barbara Bender’s Landscape Politics and Perspective.
Needless to say my presentation went awfully. I choked and died and the witty and pertinent points I had drawn out were lost as I fumbled my way through umming and ahing like a priest caught with his pecker in a choir boys gob. Damn anxiety 😡
The presentation was really short so I didn’t have time to address most of the points that I wanted to. I shall, therefore, attempt to do so here. As the presentation was a graded piece of work I won’t go over what I included in my stutter… talk as I wouldn’t want to plagiarise myself. 😀
The paper looks at the various forms of megalith found in three regions of southern Sweden and the manner in which they interact with/compliment the landscape and the effects they have on people who view and/or interact with them. My talk looked at the way in which Professor Tilley believes that people would have interacted with the monuments and the role that they played in people’s changing perceptions of landscape. Here I shall be looking at what I feel to be some serious shortcomings to his methodology, and phenomenological methods in general, and that wider societal effects of some of the concepts inherent in Tilley’s approach to understanding the monuments in their settings.

Authentic Experiences of Megaliths

My main problem with this paper, and Professor Tilley’s approach, is with the notion of an ‘authentic’ experience of megaliths. In the paper he states

“A megalith in an urban environment does not work. It is as f the modern buildings surrounding the tombs detract from them as signifiers of the past, deconsecrate their space.”

I take significant umbrage with this notion for a number of reasons. Firstly this implies that archaeology exists in isolation from the world. It does not. Archaeology is vital and existant in the present and therefore it will exist in an urban context as well as a rural one. If we want to experience megaliths in anything approximating the manner in which the people whose cultures built the monuments did then we need to experience them in as natural a state as possible. Natural that is for us, the observers.
Tilley here is creating a dichotomy that is, if anything, a hindrance to understanding these monuments,  Our species is an urban one and has been for a very, very long time. Because of this our natural setting is an urban one. When we look at our natural environment, the towns and cities we inhabit, we do not see ‘landscapes’ but instead a vital environment with which we interact and move within. When we look at the countryside, Tilley’s ‘authentic’ location, then we see a landscape, a vista. Something that is other. Obviously this is not the case for 100% of the world’s population, nor even the UK’s, but there are now more people living in an urban environment than at any point in our species existence.
Look at the images below and the difference between the manner in which we perceive them is obvious. On is an environment we would engage with when going about our daily business the other is a ‘landscape’. It is not an environment we would generally engage with or move within but one that we observe and move across in order to observe further.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How did the megalith builders perceive and interact with their environment? Did they move within it or over it? The manner in which they would have interacted with their landscapes would have more in common with the way n which we interact with our own urban environment.
I do not, can not, believe that the modern buildings surrounding the megaliths in Falköping municipality, the area to which Tilley is referring, deconsecrate the tombs. The modern structures and urban setting do, if anything, the exact opposite. They establish a continued consecration of the megaliths through their being a part of a living human culture. They are more alive in this way that any dolmen or stone circle on the most remote windswept moor or rural idyll.
Tilley is reifying the rural setting of this archaeology and displays a bourgeois idealism which he acknowledges yet refuses to address. In fact he embraces this idealism willingly, supporting it by saying that he ‘objectively’ knows that all other archaeologists feel the same. By projecting his own biases and ideology onto these megaliths Tilley attempts to isolate them from extant human culture. To render them comfortable and, ultimately, sterile.
In the article Professor Tilley claims that in an urban setting there is no dialectic between the non-human environment and the cultural form. He acknowledges that the landscape is “as much a human artefact as the town” but that the town is not culturally encoded in relation to the monument. The problem here is that the rural setting is no longer culturally encoded in relation to the monuments. Forests no longer exist which once hid these monuments from view, new forms of agriculture have wiped out previous forms into which these monuments, we expect, fitted. Landscapes have changed and been dramatically altered.
Because Professor Tilley has developed this dichotomy between rural and urban I feel that he can not understand the place of these monuments in a human environment. In an urban setting we unthinkingly interact with our environment as that is our ‘natural’ setting. If we insist that megaliths only ‘work’ in a rural setting then we are separating them from their natural context, that of being within a human society/culture. It would make sense to attempt to understand megaliths through an urban setting before making any statements about authenticity  and reifying contexts and dichotomies that were not extant when these tombs were built.

Authenticity Problems

I only want to talk briefly about this but I feel that concepts of the authentic use of any part of the lived environment or of heritage in general is extremely troublesome and can be used in order to justify the most brutal of repressions against groups who are deemed to be socially unacceptable. The idea of authenticity and the authentic use/experience of the countryside has in the past, and at present if we look to today’s events in Basildon, been used as an excuse to oppress and assault traveler communities throughout Britain. For this reason archaeologists should be extremely careful when bandying around such concepts that we live in a society that will take the idea of authenticity and use it to crush communities and break skulls.
It is because of non-authentic use of Stonehenge that English heritage supported this.

Phenomonological Fallacies

 When Tilley says that the “starting point for such an encounter must inevitably be our own personal experience of architectural and environmental space and the way they play off each other to create a distinctive sense of place” why does he do so after discounting the actual personal experience of such things that happens in the natural world. Why does he reject the urban setting that is for the majority of us the totality of our experience of architecture and space. Abandons that in favour of the ‘other’ that is the rural environment.

I feel this to be a shortcoming of phenomenological approaches. Well, the few that I have so far come across in my experience as a student of archaeology. They don’t take into account that whilst people do have a transcendental side to them, we can all have our breath taken away by a beautiful vista for example, but that is not how we view the world most of the time. We are less inclined to be concerned with the manner in which the curve of our street draws our eye inevitably towards the off license on the corner than with hoping the bloody rain holds off on our way to get a four pack.

TAG 2011 :)

I’ve just booked my tickets for the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference in Birmingham this December. I’ve never been to an academic conference before, well not one that I was really interested in. I don’t have s scooby doo what papers are being presented aside from Kenny Brophy is co-presenting a paper on Psychogeography and archaeology. Which is a lot of the reason I’m wanting to go. Which is pretty lame as he’s one of my lecturers so I could just ask him about the paper! 😀

Could be a problem for archaeologists tbh...

I’m really interested in the application of psychogeography to archaeology and especially the technique of the dérive to help us understand and interpret the landscape in which archaeology occurs. Psychogeography, and especially the dérive, is focused on interpreting an urban geography and its effect on humans. Archaeology, of the kind that floats my boat anyway, occurs mostly in a rural location. For this reason we need to develop a rural psychogeography.

As well as shifting the focus of psychogeography to a rural setting we need to explore methods of walking through time.The majority of the archaeological features that have, at one point, littered the British landscape are now little more than occasionally appearing marks in crops or subtle humps and bumps in the landscape. The archaeologist as flâneur therefore has to simultaneously locate these features and extrapolate how they may have appeared in their original setting.

As important as using these techniques for interpretation of the landscape as was it is important that archaeologists acknowledge that the vitality of the landscape, and archaeological features within it, exists in the here and now. There is no ‘authentic’ way to experience archaeology as, for example, Chris Tilley would like to believe unless we are experiencing it as it is now and as a living, breathing facet of humanity itself.

 

Damn that’s waffling. What the hell. Publish and be damned!