thinking about archaeology

Archive for June, 2012

A quick guide to bouncy druids

Sacrilege! Here is a guide to some of the things you may not know about Stonehenge and Jeremy Deller’s touring “recreational bouncer”, as it’s known in the trade.

My headline was inspired by Mitch Benn’s must-hear song “Bouncy, bouncy druids”, so let’s start with that. Apparently he wrote it during the interval at Leeds City Varieties on April 19. According to jugglerjaf, he asked the audience for three news stories, and was given the issue of an elected Mayor for Leeds, the Bahrain Grand Prix controversy and Sacrilege (pitched as “Inflatable Stonehenge”). They all appear in the song, along with blow up sheep and foam rubber torches. Benn gave another performance on the Radio 4 Now Show on June 23 – more formal, but the recording’s better!

Sacrilege is a full scale Stonehenge bouncy castle created by Turner-prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller. It was launched in April 2012 at the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Arts, as a joint commission between the festival and the Mayor of London. It’s now touring the UK as part of London 2012 Festival, having started on June 21 at the National Botanic Garden in Carmarthenshire (see my earlier blogs here and here). It arrives in London at Central Park, Greenwich on July 21.

June 21 was midsummer day, so as is the tradition other Stonehenge events popped up: amongst those this year we saw a book launch (Mike Parker Pearson’s Stonehenge “The midwinter solstice”, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, was “a kind of neolithic Christmas”); a sort of Stonehenge made of cars by “self-taught artist Tommy Gun”, and set up in central London to promote a new fully recyclable Skoda; and the solstice party at Stonehenge itself (so wet, without a clock it was impossible to tell when the day began).

Jeremy Deller (left) and Paul Walkden

The bouncer was designed and made earlier this year in Bingham, Nottinghamshire. Deller and Inflatable World’s designer and MD, Paul Walkden, went undercover to examine Stonehenge from the inside (the project was carefully guarded in advance of the Glasgow launch). Walkden replicated the shapes and detailing of the standing sarsens in Nylon PVC, with the textures and lichens painted on by hand. It was damp and overcast when they were they, so the stones’ colours are grey and dark (in the sun they can be gloriously golden). It’s engineered to take 180 bouncers at once on a circular floor 40m across.

It has all the upright sarsens – the large stones that probably came from the Marlborough Downs, 20 miles or so north of Stonehenge (the smaller Welsh bluestones and the fallen sarsens are not there). All the stones are easily recognisable: it’s a thought that while in Sacrilege they sway in the wind, and lean and wobble as people bounce around them, at Stonehenge they are almost all set in concrete.

Sacrilege is huge, but there is a smaller, remarkably similar bouncy castle that also went on tour – in Ireland. California-born artist Jim Ricks launched the Poulnabrone Bouncy Dolmen on August 8 2010. It’s a twice-scale replica of the megalithic portal tomb in the Burren, Co Clare. In the words of the Galway Advertiser, “The artist… combined an icon of ancient Ireland with an icon of contemporary Ireland, playfully re-presenting elements of Irish culture, often over-used commercially to attract tourism, in an accessible, witty, and visually arresting way.”

The concepts of bouncy dolmen and bouncy Stonehenge are so similar, you’d think there was a connection. Not so, apparently. Deller says he found out about the dolmen when researching how to make Sacrilege. Ricks saw Sacrilege in Glasgow, and the two artists got on well, and there is talk of the dolmen making an appearance when Sacrilege goes to Belfast.

Is Sacrilege sacrilegious? You might think so if you somehow imagine it is the real Stonehenge – bouncing up and down on a prehistoric cemetery might upset more than extreme Pagans. But it’s not, any more than Stonehenge itself is the site that existed four or five thousand years ago.

We take heritage seriously. We curate obsessively, we stage po-face re-enactments, we tell people they must participate and enjoy it. Sacrilege is huge fun – you don’t see a glum face anywhere near it, and of course kids love it. A good laugh strips away the undergrowth and allows us to see more clearly. It’s a focus, if you want it, for discussions about heritage values and meanings. And it’s an “engagement” project that works. You get to bounce around in the parts that most people never see in the real thing, if they see it at all, and it’s so huge and realistic that the curious are often going to want to know more. I asked a group of swaying primary school children in Marlborough, how old they thought the real thing was? We narrowed it down to between a million years and 30 years. Now, that’s a great start.

Sacrilege on tour

Don’t miss it! It’s wonderful, especially if you are a child or have children. It’s huge fun, and for many will be their first introduction to Stonehenge, and even the idea of prehistory. On the tour’s first day at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, Jeremy Deller and I were sheltering in a little tent from the rain. A party of school children suddenly stormed in and – clearly well prepared by their teachers – received an impromptu class in contemporary art and neolithic technology. I would never have forgotten something like that. The model is so huge, so real, and so bouncy, everyone will remember it.

I’m particularly excited that it’s coming to Marlborough: it will be on the Common on Friday (June 29, 10am–6pm). As everywhere, that will be just for the one day and it will be free. And its next stop, appropriately, will be the archaeological park at Flag Fen. You can see a detailed press release from the Mayor of London’s office here (as Boris Johnson puts it, it’s “a wonderfully witty, quite literal leap into that history and a fantastic example of the irreverence that are hallmarks of our great British humour and our incomparable artists”), and further tour details here.

The locations are:

Thursday 21 June
National Botanic Garden, Carmarthenshire, Wales

Sunday 24 June
Heartlands, Redruth, Cornwall

Tuesday 26 June
Belmont Park, Exeter

Friday 29 June
Marlborough Common, Wiltshire

Wednesday 4 July
Southend, Essex

Saturday 7 July
Flag Fen, Peterborough

Wednesday 11 July
Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Sunday 15 July
Saltwell Park, Gateshead

Friday 20 July
Milton Keynes

Saturday 21 July – Sunday 12 August … it will be at 14 different sites around London

Saturday 18 August
College Green, Bristol

Sunday 26 August

Sunday 9 September
Preston Guild, Preston

The extraordinary Paul Walkden of Inflatable World Leisure, who made it

Artist Jeremy Deller

Stonehenge in a Welsh bog garden

The Airmen take off

Work on the Stonehenge visitor centre starts in a couple of weeks when Vinci Construction take possession of the Airman’s Corner site. That’s the formal line. But for me it began yesterday, when the Royal Engineers, watched by Wessex Archaeology and English Heritage, released the memorial from its concrete. The site takes its name from this granite cross, commemorating the deaths of Captain Eustace Loraine and Staff Sergeant Richard Wilson a century ago on July 5. The hardest job seemed to be extracting the plaque set in 1996. It will all be looked after at Tidworth barracks for the next year, then returned to a more accessible, safer and attractive location – and just a little closer to the actual crash site.

And here’s how it all looked, with contractors fencing out the site. The Muddy patch in the field left by the solstice parking is where the visitor centre will be, and the road access site is near the future car park.

Meanwhile at Stonehenge, a strawberry vendor makes the most of Byway 12 and the gate from the car park offering access to the Cursus barrows.

And just to prove the cross was moved, here a couple of photos kindly provided by Martin Harvey of English Heritage, taken later in the day.

New discovery: TWO photos of the Magpie Musicians at Stonehenge in 1896

Published by English Heritage: protest in 1901

A funny thing happened before Stonehenge: Monumental Journey opened (as I write it has two weeks to go). We used a photo previously published twice by English Heritage (Richards 2004, 2007) as purporting to show a protest at Stonehenge by the residents of Amesbury against the fencing of the monument in 1901. I knew nothing about this protest, but I duly wrote the caption, and a copy of the original print owned by Wiltshire County Council was hung in the gallery.

The evening before the press launch of the exhibition, quite by chance I saw a very similar image undoubtedly shot by the same photographer, on eBay – on a page from the Sketch published in 1896. Out went the local protest: in came “the popping of corks” at “an open-air concert”. Within a few days, I’d been able to solve the mystery, and we changed the caption.

Published by the Sketch 1896: an open-air concert

Both photos had to date from 1896 or earlier, so where had the 1901 protest idea come from? And could we find out more about the concert? It’s a great story.

Janis Packham at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre answered my query, and told me that there was an undated handwritten text on the back of their print (ref P8425), which reads:

“The opening of new facilities at Stonehenge today (9th July) recalls the occasion in 1901 when the monument was enclosed and the public charged for admission. This old photograph, taken in 1901, shows the villagers of Amesbury who massed at Stonehenge in protest against the charge.”

The print is stamped “T.L. Fuller, Press and Commercial Photographer, Amesbury, Established 1911”. It was acquired from Yeovil Library in 1983.

So clearly, the caption was added some time after the photo was taken. The clue lay in “opening of new facilities at Stonehenge today (9th July)”.

The only appropriately significant “new facilities” event I could think of, was the opening of the pedestrian underpass. Helpfully, another of the photos in the exhibition at the Wellington Arch shows the underpass opening ceremony – dated July 9 1968! So someone wrote that caption in 1968.

Opening of subway 1968 (English Heritage)

TL Fuller was an active Amesbury photographer from around 1910. He died in 1962, so the inscription would appear to have been written by someone else. But it seems not unlikely that Fuller might have sold, and stamped, copies of an original photo by a different photographer. The Sketch cutting tells us that photographer was employed by Russell and Sons of Baker St, London. James Russell and Sons was a commercial photographic firm established in 1852. From 1889 it was based at 17 Baker Street, and in the late 19th century also had studios in Windsor and Southsea.

So, what of the concert? Chris Chippindale reproduced the print in Stonehenge Complete, a more cropped version than English Heritage’s yet showing a little more on the left side:

Published by Chippindale: village outing c 1895

Curiously, he captions it “village outing”, and the credit reads “Photo c 1895 Wiltshire County Council”. How did he avoid the mistake of saying it was a protest in 1901? One explanation could be that WCC has (or had) two prints, the other with more correct (but incomplete) information. Stonehenge Complete was first published in 1983. Could Thames & Hudson have been able to use a print the council acquired from Yeovil in the same year? Might WCC already have had a different one?

On the page opposite the reproduction of the print, Chippindale reproduced a poster for a concert at Stonehenge on September 18 1896 – 12 days before the publication of the Sketch photo (the original poster is in the collection of Devizes Museum). He didn’t know it, but this must be advertising the concert featured in the photos. It tells us all we need to know, including the name of the photographer: Messrs J Russell & Sons of Baker St.

So who are these Magpie Musicians from the Crystal Palace, and what did they play? From online regional press archives, we can see they were a troupe of five or six players who toured the country with a comedic mix of song, dance and music. They did, as the poster says, feature at the Crystal Palace (they were there in 1896 on at least August 19–22, a month before their appearance at Stonehenge), but they were as likely to be seen on the Isle of Wight or in Aberdeen. They performed in black and white costume, and one of their songs (“She’s a lubly gal”, composed by stalwart Miss Stanhope) is described as a “coon song”, so perhaps the Magpie Musicians were an early precursor of the 1960s UK television Black and White Minstrel Show, which was also popular on tour.

There were changes in line-up, but at a typical performance around 1896 you might have seen Mr A Collard (the leader, on flute, playing perhaps “Hush a bye” or “Sing, sweet bird”), Miss Allington (soprano), Miss Gwendolyn (on Indian clubs and piano), Miss Erroll Stanhope (siffleuse, comedienne, with “Little Miss Primm” in her repertoire) and Mr Malcolm Scott (singer, eccentric dancer, comedian, giving “She’s a lubly gal” a turn); Mr Sidney Vincent (on banjo) might also have made an appearance.

Press reports confirm their Stonehenge event, at which 1,000 people are said to have been present and a spaniel called Nick was mislaid:

Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette Thur 24 Sep 1896

Western Gazette Fri 25 Sep 1896

This report describing a performance at Southampton in 1895 gives a flavour of the occasion:

Hampshire Advertiser Sat 10 Aug 1895

What next? We can probably reconstruct more details of this extraordinary event – at least from today’s perspective – at Stonehenge. It offers an insight into the sort of thing that could happen there before the private owner took full control by fencing the site and charging admission. It’s worth noting how, despite the undoubted objections Lord Antrobus had to face at enclosing the site, he would have had support as well, not least (with a familiar modern ring) from someone in London who hadn’t actually been there. This is what the Sketch writer said to accompany the photo:

The H Eyres on the side of the cart (did he bring a piano to Stonehenge?) was an Amesbury carrier; perhaps the same vehicle can be seen in this photo in Salisbury market place in 1889, also in the county collection; the business was running a bus service in the 1930s.

Local people can surely add to my account. Are there more prints around, and has WCC got more than one? Is there a more detailed record of the concert – it would be surprising if no one had mentioned it in a postcard, letter or diary? What is the apparent signature reading L&E (?) in the bottom left corner of the Sketch print? Was Nick ever found? Please add your comments, information and corrections.


Chippindale, C, 1983. Stonehenge Complete

Richards, J 2004. Stonehenge: A History in Photographs

Richards J, 2007. Stonehenge: The Story So Far

The archaeology of the 2012 Olympics site

We’re really proud of the new British Archaeology. The cover shows the main feature, an exclusive insight into the archaeological research and excavations at the 2012 Olympic Park site, one of the UK’s largest recent field projects. Until the academic monograph is published later this year, this article is likely to remain the only authoritative guide to what happened when the two biggest archaeological organisations working in London got together to start work in the lower Lea valley in 2003.

Other features include the story of archaeologist Roger Grosjean, fighter pilot, MI5 agent and discus-throwing record holder; the Anglo-Saxon mystery of Prior’s Hall; the Viking buried at Swordle Bay, an exclusive description of last year’s excavation in the far west of Scotland; Matt Grove’s compelling ideas about what drove human evolution (“How climate made us – and competition killed the rest”); and a scheme for ochre plaques – if a fictional rock star can have a commemorative plaque, why not Boxgrove Man and the Amesbury Archer?

If you buy your copy in Smiths, you should get there fast, as it’s being promoted in the shops and copies will move. Alternatively, you can now get the magazine as an App, and it looks great on a tablet, with the added bonuses of digital searching and a back issue archive. Best of all is to have Council for British Archaeology membership, which gives you a printed magazine, digital access and other benefits.

And here’s another document I like

The job spec for Head of Interpretation (Stonehenge). Not a huge salary in its context (starts at £43,103), but hopefully the profile and peculiar nature of the two-year job will attract exceptional applicants. Interviews in eight days.

And here’s another key archaeology job, perhaps a lifetime career, salary c £52k, “incredibly rewarding” and a very pretty brochure. Closing date tomorrow.







Human remains: good news for archaeologists, maybe

The slow-moving debate about how archaeologists working in Britain should be monitored and controlled when excavating or handling ancient human remains has at last reached its key stage: in May the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) issued a new application form.

British Archaeology covered the issues, and asked that archaeologists, not the ministry, be allowed to choose whether remains are retained for scientific study. We have been given this choice, which of course I applaud. We have also been given a long form to complete, and how it works out in practice will emerge over the coming several months. Some of the form’s wording might suggest the battle is not yet over.

Consideration of applications “to excavate human remains for archaeological purposes”, says the form, will “balance”, amongst other things, “the case for the removal, examination and retention of the remains in the interests of archaeological research against any countervailing factors, such as any public known concerns about the proposals or any risk to public confidence in the decent and respectful treatment of human remains”. Clearly the critical point will be how that is interpreted. One thing is clear: the time spent on paperwork will go up.

My main posts on this subject, which contain many links, are here (in chronological order):

Listening to Pagans

(“Here are two photos of Pagans thinking about prehistoric human remains, under rather different circumstances,…”

Why do archaeologists worry about human remains?

(“We launched our campaign this week to persuade the Ministry of Justice to take a sensible approach to administering the law…”)

Update on excavating human remains

(“Debate about this issue has increased since my last post…”)

Why reburial is not a Pagan issue (this time)

(“Discussion continues. Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly MP wrote to the Guardian to say our concerns are “wide of the mark”…”)

Sense prevails at Stonehenge, again

(“It was good yesterday to see Arthur Pendragon’s request for a judicial review about the Stonehenge burials thrown out…”)

The student-run, peer-reviewed Papers from the Institute of Archaeology (PIA) recently published a useful article on this subject by Mike Parker Pearson, Tim Schadla-Hall & Gabe Moshenska, “Resolving the Human Remains Crisis in British Archaeology”. The whole text is online, along with comments from various people including me.

And here is the form:




Metal detecting in the US

There’s been a debate in the States involving serious issues, prompted by two TV series. One of them, a pilot that appears to have at least temporarily been shelved, was made by National Geographic, the other by Spike TV, creator of  “1000 Ways to Die” (“true stories about those who succumbed to the grim reaper in the most unorthodox of styles”, with “full re-enactment” and “fun historical tidbits”) and “Deadliest Warrior” (what would have happened if Joan of Arc had fought William the Conqueror?). The programmes were not as different from each other as you might have expected. There has been huge disquiet in both the professional archaeological and detecting communities about both series. I wrote about the issues for a guest editorial in Anthropology Today, and the publisher John Wiley have kindly made the whole text accessible for free and open to comment. You can find it here.