The arrow on the road sign pointed in the direction of the ‘ancient monument’. I was almost there. Turning right I stopped in the gateway and inspected the track along which the road sign directed me. Deciding it was too overgrown and uneven to take my little hire car, I parked at the gate and continued on foot. Up a gentle incline, route controlled and directed by the vehicle track, the field of tall ripening wheat on my right and the thick hedgerow on my left, in every sense an avenue or processional way, my sense of anticipation grew with every step.
As the incline eased off an area of newly mown grass came into sight, the first clue that I was nearing my destination. A sign stated that this was the car park for that ‘ancient monument’, ironically one that my car could not reach. This was the antechamber, the preparation point, through which I had first to pass. Beyond, a post and wire fence demarcated a distinctly different space. Empty but for an interpretation board, neatly cut grass contrasting sharply with the agricultural fields around, a gateway invited me to enter. I stepped through into the sacred space. Once inside the colourful interpretation board drew me, to encounter, to read, to understand, and then to encounter the ‘ancient monument’ itself. But this is no ancient monument in the conventional sense. No obvious banks or walls greeted me. Instead, concrete shapes on the ground mark out the ground plans of two timber halls excavated in the 1960s. One early Neolithic in date, and the main reason for my pilgrimage to this site, and the other Early Historic in date. Built 4500 years after the first. In exactly the same spot. Something of an archaeological mystery.
As I walked around, trying to make sense of the concrete shapes, taking in the landscape around, the sense of this as somewhere different, set apart, increased. The smell of cut grass filled the air. I was alone but for the skylarks in the air above. Overlooked by hills to the north and south, this location felt enclosed and defined. The surrounding fence emphasised this further. That fence declared that here was something important, unique even, something to be contained, divided and protected from that beyond. But is it? More important than what is outside the fence, that is? Somehow different from the landscape beyond? Wasn’t and isn’t it still a part of a wider context? A part of a wider landscape? Neatly parcelled and defined, experience is orchestrated and controlled. Once inside, there is freedom to wander, to draw one’s own conclusions. Yet that freedom is limited, defined by the fence, apparently defining the limits of what is ‘ancient’ and ‘monumental’ for this less than monumental monument. Wrapped within its wood and wire fence, this concrete and grass encounter is enigmatic and fascinating. A little glimpse of the past, marked out in concrete.
I thought about the first farmers who had chosen this spot to build their hall, the effort of cutting down trees, shaping wood and erecting a massive building, surely a large undertaking, impressive in final form, burnt in final destruction. How many were involved in its building? Why here? How long did it stand before being burnt? Would the glow of the burning building and smoke from the fire have been visible around about? Would scattered communities have known that this structure, the only one like it in East Lothian as far as we know, was being burnt. Or were they a part of the ceremony of burning? And what of those those who built another hall here 4500 years later? What drew them back to this spot? Why build here? Again? So many questions, so much to think about!
I exited the way I had come. Out through the wooden gate, through the mown car park (still empty of cars), along the narrow track, downhill to the metal gate and beyond my parked car and the sign pointing in the direction of the ‘ancient monument’. It is pointing there still if you would like to visit, to experience this site for yourself. Undoubtedly your experience will differ from mine. Maybe the grass will have grown a little. Maybe there will be cars in the car park and others with whom to share the experience. But no matter what you think of Doon Hill, it will be orchestrated and guided, wrapped and defined. And it may well raise more questions than it answers. Though perhaps it was no different in the past, when the timber halls at Doon Hill were constructed.
Doonhill is a fascinating site, which is looked after by Historic Scotland. It is located 2 miles south of Dunbar, off the A1. If you visit, don’t be disappointed by the lack of the monumental (despite what the road sign says!), as it is a site that holds much interest and is truly an archaeological mystery. The first timber hall was built in the early 4th millennium BC by some of the first farmers in Scotland and then burnt down. Some 4500 years later, another timber hall was built in exactly the same location. Perhaps you may want to come up with your own theories as to how this came about! A vast array of digital images of Doon Hill can be viewed on Canmore.