Farewell, Long Meg

Hello folks! I hope the first week of 2016 has treated you well. In truth, mines been quite stressful. My final assessment deadline for the Visual Media in Archaeology module was last Thursday and, let’s just say it was down to the wire. But then, last minute seems to be what I do best! Anyway, I think the essay went well, although there were definite improvements that I could have made… but I’ll guess we’ll see how I’ve done in 6 weeks when I get my results.

Despite all that, it marks the end of the module which makes me a little sad. It was certainly one of my favourite modules I’ve studied at York so far, as I expressed in my last blog post. And with that, it’s time to say goodbye to the ‘mini-project’ also. I hope that I’ve succeeded in giving you a small insight into the wonderful site that is Long Meg and Her Daughters, and even inspired some of you to go and check it out for yourselves. I’ve enjoyed looking more closely at a site which I’ve known for so long, yet never bothered to learn much about. In truth, visualising the site was harder than I thought it would be, and I maybe could have done more. But let’s not dwell on what could have been. In all honesty, the ‘mini-project’ has been invaluable in helping me to understand and apply the theories in archaeological visualisation to a real site. And I hope you lovely readers have also found it interesting – maybe even learnt something new! And so, as we say farewell to Long Meg I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite photo’s of the site…

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Don’t forget you can always visit ‘the mini-project’ under ‘Categories’ if you get withdrawal symptoms, and everything I’ve written about Long Meg can be accessed there. Never fear though, this isn’t the end of my blog; I will continue to post regular updates on projects I’m working on and things I’m interested in. And if you’re interested too then watch this space!

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Neolithic people were vandals too…

As I briefly mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve been on holiday! I went to Warsaw in Poland last week, just for a bit of a break, to see the Christmas market, go ice-skating, drink stupid amounts of mulled wine, eat my body weight in food everyday – just the usual things you tend to do at this time of year. Warsaw was lovely, especially the Old Town, however I couldn’t help but notice the amount of graffiti around the city. Everywhere. It was inescapable. And, of course, having recently studied the impact of graffiti in heritage issues and contemporary archaeology, it got me thinking about the relevance of graffiti in personal (and communal) expression and identity. (This inevitably made me feel guilty for not sharing what I’d been learning with you guys sooner but, you know, I had sights to see and waffles to eat so I soon got over that…)

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I sadly (perhaps stupidly!) didn’t take any photo’s of the graffiti in Warsaw, but it was everywhere – even here in the Old Town!

Graffiti is often considered as anti-social vandalism, and largely remains studied by criminologists and sociologists. It is widely viewed as ugly, garish and damaging. Yet, if you get over the cultural stigma surrounding graffiti then it can tell you interesting things about the place you live – it can be used for political expression and social collaboration. Above all, it allows for artistic expression and gives often marginalised people a chance to engage in a kind of discursive practice which goes unnoticed by most people every day. In my opinion, if it is used for beneficial means then the power and expression elicited by graffiti should be respected and to an extent encouraged.

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An example of graffiti in Warsaw. Photo by ROA ! on Flickr

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A ‘Wandjina’ type stencil re inscribed with the word ‘stolen’. Photo by Ursula Frederick who studies the influence of looking at graffiti on understanding rock art and heritage issues in Australia.

So how does this help us in archaeology? Well if, as suggested by Ursula Frederick (2009, 212), you define graffiti as a “complex mark-making phenomenon” then studying graffiti has the potential to tell us about mark-making practices in the past. It may be possible shed light on the reasons behind mark-making, such as why prehistoric peoples made cup and ring marks? Was it part of a cultural tradition? Was it a way of saying ‘We were here!’? Or was it supernatural – linked to star constellations, or the movement of the moon? Questions like this bring me back to my ‘mini-project’ and Long Meg…

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Long Meg features ‘cup and ring’ marks, frequently found across northern England.

Long Meg is special in that she features Neolithic rock art, something which is found widely across Britain, northern England in particular (read more about this here). I’m going to be honest and tell you that I don’t actually know a lot about rock art, or ring and cup marks, or anything much about the theories on why prehistoric people chose to paint and carve things into cave walls and megaliths. I can still speculate though, and I hope you as readers don’t mind me doing so. Like modern graffiti, rock art across Britain has recurring motifs or styles. Whether there is a link between these styles, or what this might be if there is one, can be questioned. Like graffiti again they are often found on ‘public’, outfacing areas – on stone circles like at Long Meg, and cairns. They are public – but does this then mean that they aren’t secret? How do we know that the Neolithic people who made these marks weren’t also involved in a kind of secret discursive practice? How do we know that it wasn’t only a few members of Neolithic society which used these marks as a visual criticism on the politics of their contemporary society? What on earth could cup and rings be a criticism about I hear you ask… Well, I can’t answer that but I welcome any suggestions(!) Perhaps they were also viewed as destructive and ugly – damn those anti-social Neolithic people and their vandalistic ways!

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Photo by DavidRBadger 2015 (Flickr)

Maybe, just maybe, they had no meaning at all, and it was just a way of passing time – a simple artistic practice passed on from one to another. Ursula Frederick (mentioned above) writes about the potential use of rock art research in looking at contemporary graffiti. She questions:

“How do we determine which marks made in the past were ‘legitimately’ produced and which ones effectively went ‘against the grain’ of accepted convention?” (2009, 229)

How indeed. The frequency of cup and ring marks across northern England would suggest that the ones on Long Meg didn’t go ‘against the grain’. So can we call them Neolithic graffiti? I say yes – it may have been an accepted practice, unlike graffiti today, but it has significant similarities with graffiti. It has a purpose, it has a visual presence which probably had a contemporary meaning, and it must have connected people together in a visual discourse which is, sadly, as inaccessible to us today as much of the discourse behind the graffiti in our towns and cities.

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‘Cup and ring’ mark on the monolith ‘Long Meg’

Above all that, the rock art at Long Meg is simplistically beautiful, and like some graffiti, should be respected and not overlooked. I urge you to visit it if you get the chance. Let me know in the comments your thoughts on rock art/graffiti and also if I’ve made any sense with this post at all! It is a fascinating subject and one which I will endeavour to learn more about.

If you would like to read more, take a look at this lovely brochure by The Northumberland and Durham Rock Art Pilot Project on the ADS. There are more links to information on rock art in the brochure, as well as a link to The British Rock Art Blog. Check it out!

Frederick, U.K. (2009) “Revolution Is the New Black: Graffiti/Art and Mark-Making Practices.” Archaeologies 5 (2). Springer US: 210–37.

Witches and Wizards

Just a quick one today… I thought it was about time I actually told you lovely readers about the folklore of Long Meg and Her Daughters and why the site has the name it does. I’m sorry it’s taken me this long, I’ve been getting carried away with archaeological debates and theories in visualisation, when really stories about witches and wizards are so much cooler right?!

I won’t start with ‘Once Upon A Time’ – that always implies a happy ending and, if you believe this story, it’s not really a happy ending. The legend goes that Long Meg was a witch who was practicing a Pagan worship with her daughters when she was found by a Scottish wizard (some accounts insist that he was a saint) named Michael Scott, who then turned them to stone. Not so happy then, I personally wouldn’t want to be turned to stone for centuries. There may be hope for them yet though; the legend says that if the stones were to be counted twice the spell would be broken and Long Meg and her daughters would be released from their stony slumber. It’s a common legend associated with stone circles, and it is integral to the identity of the site as a heritage place. If anything else, it gives the stones a certain agency and an identity of their own which exudes an ‘other-worldliness’ and a sense of longevity. The contribution of folktales to our sense of heritage and history is therefore of an importance which shouldn’t be undermined.

Folklore and archaeology are an interesting mix. They have a kind of love-hate relationship. Folklore and legends are often the first thing that gets people hooked on the past which has the potential to lead them into studying archaeology. Take the legends of King Arthur or Robin Hood, for example, which are loved so much by so many people. Yet archaeology tries to disprove these legends, claiming that there’s always a more logical reason for that circular ditch over there (“no way is it the Round Table!”) or that sword found in that lake (“its Bronze Age actually so, ya know, it can’t be Excalibur”). I’m an archaeologist, a fact which is now inescapable, so of course I believe that there’s always a more logical reason for sites and features to be there. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t value legends and find them intriguing, or believe that there isn’t a grain of truth in them. They often offer a form of escapism, a way of living in a fantasy, and if that gets people interested in the past then where’s the harm in that??

Speak Giant-mother!

Some thoughts for a Sunday:

The monument commonly called Long Meg

A weight of Awe not easy to be borne
Fell suddenly upon my spirit, cast
From the dread bosom of the unknown past,
When first I saw that family forlorn;
Speak Thou, whose massy strength and stature scorn
The power of years – pre-eminent, and placed
Apart, to overlook the circle vast.
Speak Giant-mother! tell it to the Morn,
While she dispels the cumbrous shades of night;
Let the Moon hear, emerging from a cloud,
At whose behest uprose on British ground
That Sisterhood in hieroglyphic round
Forth-shadowing, some have deemed the infinite
The inviolable God that tames the proud.

William Wordsworth, 1822

It’s not exactly ‘visualisation’ but isn’t it lovely. It is by the notable William Wordsworth (I’m sure you’ve all heard of him!) and it speaks of Long Meg herself looking over her ‘family forlorn’. Wordsworth describes his ‘weight of Awe’ and expresses his trouble at ‘the unknown past’ (something many archaeologists may sympathise with). He tells the story of Long Meg and how she came to be turned to stone: “The inviolable God that tames the proud.” He describes the elemental nature of the site in a way only a Romantic poet could: “…whose massy strength and stature scorn.” The poem is more than just a phenomenological account or a descriptive narrative.

Anyone who’s been to the Lake District knows that Wordsworth is a key figure in the history of the area. The associative heritage values which are forcefully inflicted upon every place which Wordsworth visited, or touched, or was possibly seen, make up a huge part of the Lake District’s overall heritage. Just the fact that he wrote a poem about Long Meg tells of the significance of the site to the poet, and this, through association alone, raises the profile of the site to the level of the wider heritage of the Lake District. On a smaller level, it also tells of a singular past perception of the site – that of Wordsworth’s himself. It is a significant addition to the layers of meaning entwined within the stones and provides us with a link to the temporal existence of the place – a moment in 1882 when Wordsworth trudged around the stones as we do today. It is a powerful document of this encounter.

Let’s briefly acknowledge the power of poetry and its potential in archaeological discourse. Recently in class we’ve been thinking about text in museum displays which has led me to start thinking about how we describe and inform visitors about what they’re looking at. Perhaps poetry is underrated as a means of narrative.

Surely, in its own semi-ambiguous way, poetry can encourage deeper thought – and therefore deeper engagement with the subject matter in hand? This comes back to the question of intended meanings and personal self-contextual interpretations. I could get dragged into the ‘Death of the Author’ theory here (I frequently get jolted back to my brief stint in History of Art and sitting in a stuffy seminar room learning about Barthes whilst drinking coffee which I inevitably let go cold) – but let’s keep this simple. Whatever meanings Wordsworth wanted to convey about Long Meg and Her Daughters, we as modern day readers read his words in our own ways, and we probably don’t read it as he would have wished. However we’re ‘supposed’ to read it though, it still remains subjective and we bring our own baggage to the interpretation table.

I want to suggest that poetry is more powerful in helping us to engage with sites and objects on a deeper, more meaningful level. Even the style of language elicits more work from the reader to decipher what Wordsworth is describing and what story he is telling us.  So should it be used more as a creative way of describing sites and collections in museums – in order to make the viewer work harder for their sought-after archaeological knowledge. and hence provoke a deeper level of engagement? Or shall we stick to the simple less-than-75-word plaques which get the job done and tell the visitor what the curators want them to know about the objects in from of them?

No doubt somewhere, at some time, poetry has been used in a museum as a narrative medium and this isn’t a novel idea at all. I congratulate any curator(s) who have used it – I just hope it gets used more often, especially at the premise of the ‘post-museum.’

Despite all that, it’s just a lovely poem about a lovely site!

Art and Archaeology: a love affair?

I will admit that I’ve struggled with this blog post. It’s not the actual writing which bothers me, or the thought of people clearly more educated in the vast world of archaeological visualisation reading my humble thoughts (this is a place as much for me to explore my ideas on how we visualise archaeology as it is for you lovely readers to be entertained). It’s simply that over the past six weeks of immersing myself in the huge array of literature on visual media in archaeology I find myself somewhat overwhelmed. From the (un-)surprising relationship between art and archaeology, to the verisimilitude of representations in film and television, to the increasingly didactic nature of museum displays since the eighteenth century – I find myself emerged in a new (for me at least) way of looking at representations of the past, which makes me question even the most basic form of media in archaeology. And so I find myself wondering, how I can even begin to apply the various theories and ideas to the site I so enthusiastically introduced last week? And for that reason, I’ve been putting it off – it’s not that I have nothing to say, it’s that I have too much to say!

Let’s take baby steps then. I’ll begin with the artistic representation of Long Meg and Her Daughters (perhaps not baby steps?!). I realise that the use of art in archaeology is a contested subject (isn’t everything in visualisation?!) and there clearly isn’t room in this blog post to go into too much depth on the debate surrounding the artistic representation of the past. I’ll stick then with one painting to analyse. Indeed, there are very few painting of Long Meg available online, and I hope there are many more out there which people have painted over the years – whether proudly sat on a living room wall or gathering dust in the corner of someone’s attic!

The piece I am going to focus on is by the artist Sam Douglas:

© Sam Douglas 2014 Long Meg and her daughters 30x20cm Oil on board

© Sam Douglas 2014
Long Meg and her daughters
30x20cm
Oil on board

It is an oil-on-board piece simply titled ‘Long Meg and Her Daughters’. It has an element of photorealism, painted from a single perspective with Long Meg in the foreground and her daughters gathered in the distance. The tree demands a large amount of attention being centrally located within the painting. However, it doesn’t tell me a lot else about the site. So what is it about? How can it be useful to us as archaeologists?

Perhaps like this:

Douglas’ paintings have been described as “much more to do with how he ‘feels’ about the natural environment and the emotional responses it stimulates than the physical topography that initially lies before him” (www.contemporarybritishpainting.com). The key terms here are “feels” and “emotional response”. How this is evident in the picture is ambiguous, but a simple critical reading of the painting -looking at form, colour, tone, lighting etc.- suggest to me a brooding, secretive, almost mysterious feeling. Is it almost suggestive, given the subject matter, of our frustrations with trying to understanding the past. Indeed, if I was to fully understand this piece I would have to get in touch with Douglas himself and ask about his life; his background, his education, his beliefs, hopes, desires. Why has he painted it in this way? Is it supposed to be photo realistic? Or abstract? What meanings does he want to convey about the site? What was his experience of the site? I could go on…

I have to acknowledge here that Douglas is an artist, not an archaeological illustrator. As far as I am aware the painting is not intended for an archaeological audience. Yet current thinking encourages the crossing of disciplines in order to fully engage with archaeological practice and the process of interpretation. This is emphasised by Colin Renfrew when discussing Richard Long’s ephemeral open-air sculptures and how this has impacted his view on the agency of Neolithic burial chambers in Orkney. As he states “All experience is subjective (2003, 42), whether in the past or the present. Looking at paintings like this then, is useful to archaeologists in that it highlights the necessity of the subjective approach to experiencing our material past. Perhaps Douglas’ slightly murky effect not only tells of his experience with the site, but also of the experience a visitor can expect when they go to the site.

Personally, I like Douglas’ style, and the question of whether it is accurate or archaeologically meaningful is irrelevant to me to an extent. It is very much about personal experience, which is something the discipline of art can teach to the discipline of archaeology; step away from the obsession with objectivity and embrace the human senses. Embrace how they form your experience and explorations of the past. Above all, embrace how they make you feel within yourself.

Perhaps the benefits which arise from the relationship between art and archaeology should not be underestimated. Together they form a powerful and influential couple – maybe they’re a match made in heaven?! Who knows.

Renfrew, C (2003) Figuring It Out: The Parallel Visions of Artists and Archaeologists London: Thames and Hudson, 26-49.

Introducing The Mini- Project: Visualising Long Meg And Her Daughters


In my pursuit of exploration in the world of visual media in archaeology I have decided to focus on a site which I have a particular affinity with: the Neolithic stone circle of Long Meg and Her Daughters. I’m not sure why this is. I guess from a young age I had a fascination with stone circles; their raw simplistic beauty and mystery seemed to appeal to the younger me, and indeed they still do. This is something I most probably share with many other people, as evident by the sheer number of people who visit sites such as Stonehenge and the Stones of Stenness at the mid-summer and mid-winter solstices each year. Why do we feel such an affinity with these places? And why do some people accept them as part of their heritage and others regard them as monuments belonging to other peoples (of the past and present)? I suppose I see Long Meg and Her Daughters as part of my heritage, as a local of the area.

Looking east towards the Eden Valley from the village where I grew up. Photo Credit: Katrina Gargett, 2104

Looking east towards the Eden Valley from the village where I grew up. Photo Credit: Katrina Gargett, 2014

The Lake District, looking towards Keswick. Photo credit: Katrina Gargett, 2015

The Lake District, looking towards Keswick. Photo credit: Katrina Gargett, 2015

I was lucky enough to grow up in Cumbria, a truly beautiful part of the world. My village is conveniently located on the border between the dramatic Lake District to the west and the rolling Eden Valley to the east, both of which have their fair share of prehistoric sites. It was my visits to Castlerigg Stone Circle, near where I went to school in Keswick, which first got me hooked. It might surprise you to know that, for years, I thought this was the only stone circle near to where I lived. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I found out Long Meg and Her Daughters even existed, after a conversation with my Dad. I immediately demanded that he take me there. Why I hadn’t discovered it before, I really don’t know.

The site is located near Little Salkeld in the Eden Valley. On visiting the site, apart from the obvious beauty of the place, it struck me how different it was from any other stone circle I had ever visited. We were the only people there. I’d never experienced this before. And it was huge – it is one of the largest stone circle in the country. So where were all the visitors? Why was it not well signposted? Do people know about this place? My research since tells me that yes, people do know about Long Meg and Her Daughters. Yet when someone asks you to name a stone circle in Britain, or in Cumbria even, I bet few people would say this site. I want to raise the profile of the site. I want to bring all the stories, drawings and photographs together in one place to build up a picture of the site. I want to document its influence over people’s lives and address the importance of archaeological visualisation. I want to discover the role of heritage and the place it takes in in our modern-day lives, through my own personal experience of Long Meg. I intend to use media such as photography and video to experiment with this.

Long Meg and Her Daughters. Photo credit: Katrina Gargett, 2014

Long Meg and Her Daughters. Photo credit: Katrina Gargett, 2014

The site has a fascinating history and over the course of the next few weeks I will explore all aspects of this. Long Meg has clearly captured the imaginations of countless people, judging from the folklore surrounding the site, the poetry written by poets including Keats and Wordsworth, the coloured ribbons tied to the tree in the centre of the circle, and the flowers often laid at the foot of Long Meg herself. I will argue that am one of these people, I can see the romantic appeal of the place. Yet my archaeological brain tells me to view the site differently, objectively, as something to record. Do I often wish to go back to the innocent days before the archaeological ‘sight’ when I could appreciate more fully the mysterious romanticism of the place? Perhaps. But then I wouldn’t have the appreciation of the site I have now, from this contextual standpoint I currently stand. Which do I value more? Whose view and interpretation of a site is the correct one? Who does a site like this belong to?

It is questions like these that I could easily get entangled in now, but then I would simply be rambling. For now, this discussion can wait until later on in this blog. I will endeavour to raise issues such as this – the dialogue between archaeologists and the true representation of the past, the debate between objectivity and subjectivity, the relationship between art and archaeology etc. – throughout this mini-project. Until then, I hope I have wetted your appetite and explained a little of why Long Meg is such a special site and deserves more attention than it currently receives…