Last month I was at Lochbrow in Dumfries and Galloway taking part in the Lochbrow Landscape Project. This is an ongoing project investigating the sites and landscapes at and around Lochbrow, most of which have been revealed as cropmarks on aerial photographs. As this is a project close to my heart and one that I have been thinking about a lot, I thought I would share some of my recent reflections, and specifically one aspect of this project that has done much to challenge and refine my thinking.
Lochbrow is a fascinating place. It is the location of a timber cursus, an early Neolithic monument and probably one of the first monument types built in Scotland, at least one timber circle, a later Neolithic or Early Bronze Age monument form (I suspect the Lochbrow example to be Late Neolithic) and a number of round barrows. It is a location with a long history of use and re-use. Yet there is no hint of the presence of these sites above ground; all have been recorded as cropmarks on aerial photographs. In part, this is due to the timber nature of most of the sites known here – the cursus and timber circle were constructed of large timber posts and these wooden elements have long since decayed and disappeared. All that remains are the buried post-pits, which subsequently cause the formation of the cropmarks. But it is also to do with the fact that this location has been ploughed for a long period of time, which means that the ploughing has flattened the landscape, removing any above-ground trace of the sites. Today, the sites at Lochbrow lie below a modern field, which provides no hint of its prehistoric past.
Such sites present particular challenges to the archaeologist, not least in accurately locating them on the ground when undertaking field visits, but also in engaging with these sites as real places, rather than just empty fields and abstract notions. There is just nothing left with which to engage. Could this suggest that field visits to the location of such cropmark sites or any consideration of the experience of or landscape context of these monuments has limited value? I suggest not. Instead I strongly believe that a consideration of landscape setting (and the changes that may have taken place within that landscape) is vitally important to better understand the sites that we seek to investigate, even those with which it is a little more difficult to engage. In relation to Lochbrow, I have already written about the fact that my visits to Lochbrow have led me to believe these sites were closely tied to their location and that the cursus at least may have copied or mimicked elements of its landscape location. Whether or not you accept my interpretations, I do not believe I could really approach an understanding or write about these sites in any great depth had I not visited their former locations. Now, I know that on each occasion I visited Lochbrow I was able to locate the cursus and timber circle on the ground reasonable accurately, but as my earlier visits were still only based upon having the plan of the cropmarks in my hand – there were no marks on the ground to guide me – there was still a slightly abstract, distanced element to my visits and there must have been an element of error to my locating of the cropmarks.
Last month, though, this changed and for the first time we marked out the location of the cursus and timber circle on the ground. Using a differential GPS, we placed flags along the length of the cursus and the boundary of the timber circle, even placing flags in the location of many of the recorded post holes (there were not quite enough flags to put one in the location of each know posthole, something that reflects the large number of timbers needed to build these monuments). For me, having looked at the cropmarks of these sites for several years, and having thought and considered their landscape location in some depth, this was very exciting and actually proved to be quite profound. For the first time, I was able to walk along the cursus (albeit marked out by small flags rather than large timbers), experience the scale and dimensions of these monuments and think about those dimensions in relation to an individual. I was able to see and consider aspects of the form of the cursus and timber circle that are not obvious on interpretation plans of the cropmarks, and think about the nature and experience of these sites in a way not possible without their boundaries marked on the ground. The simple act of flagging out the boundaries of these monuments transformed what had been a rather abstract landscape and a landscape of my imagination (previously I had walked around the landscape imagining myself back into the cursus or timber circle), to a real space and in the process has begun to transform my understanding of these cropmark sites. For me, this was a real ‘grounding’ of the cropmarks, in a way that geophysics has not been able to do and any future excavation is unlikely to do on the same scale because of the smaller nature of the any such intervention.
Why, though, is this relevant? Well, the sites and landscapes that we seek to understand were real spaces and real places, built and used by real people and communities. They were human places and humanly-created spaces. Therefore, one way to think about them in greater depth is to place ourselves back into those spaces and think about them through our bodily experience. I am not saying that we can get back to or recreate prehistoric experience, just that this is one way of adding another dimension to our interpretations and of beginning to engage with these sites in a different way. In the absence of excavation (and even with excavation, the full extent of these sites are unlikely to be revealed) it is the only way to locate these sites on the ground with any real accuracy. By doing so, it becomes possible to consider some of the ways in which these monuments interacted with and related to their wider landscape location. For example, the cursus at Lochbrow lies close to a drumlin, far closer in fact than I had previously realised, and may in fact respect that natural feature in its layout. It also provided opportunities to think about the functioning of these sites and the ways in which communication and experience may have changed and altered perception in and around the monuments. So, marking out the location of cropmark sites such as those at Lochbrow has the potential to add a lot to any interpretations of these sites and their contexts.
Of course, we used small flags rather than large timbers and neither the cursus nor the timber circle may have existed in exactly the configurations shown on the plans of the cropmarks (we know, for example, that many timber cursus monuments seem to have been built, dismantled and rebuilt on several occasions, perhaps changing layout several times during the process). But this cannot negate the added dimension this has given to my understanding and thinking about these cropmark sites. Next year we will mark out these sites once again. By so doing we will fill in and emphasise aspects of this apparently empty landscape, highlighting the richness of the prehistoric activity hidden beneath the soil, and in the process hopefully add further to our thinking about these sites. Altogether, this one aspect of the project has proved to be a worthwhile and transforming exercise. I just wonder why we took so long to get round to doing it!