The Sword Cycle

The ability to transform materials can have an almost magical quality.  There is great skill to be able to source metalliferous ores, smelt them to produce metal and then cast to produce complex objects.

Molten SwordNew SwordWhen a Bronze sword was removed from its, typically clay, mould…

Cast Swordits edges were trimmed, sharpened and blade polished.

A wooden hilt and pommel may have been attached.

Living SwordIf Bronze Age metalwork broke (or was no longer desirable) it could readily be recycled.

Melted down and recast in a different mould.

Fiery SwordIf such objects are not repaired, reused or recycled, they can potentially drop out of the cycle, found by archaeologists, corroded green with time.

Lost SwordWhen recovered properly another cycle of study and learning commences.

Fragments conserved, analysed…

Melted Sword…reassembled and interpreted.


The Bronze Sword cycle above relates to a Wilburton type sword,  a type in production some time around c 1000 to 900 BC.  About this time Iron production commenced and cycles of production and recycling which may have taken place in the United Kingdom for about 1500 years before were challenged by new powers.

During Burning the Circle 2014 the Bronze sword was placed on the central ‘pyre’ structures which burned fiercely for nearly four hours, and then smouldered to nothing during the remainder of the night.  The broken and fragmented remains of the sword were excavated the next morning, amongst the broken parts were hundreds of small spheres of Bronze.  These spheres indicate that, in the heart of the fire temperatures reached c 950 degrees centigrade, at which point parts of the sword turned liquid.

All images are of activities taking place at Burning The Circle, apart from the hafted polished sword which has been kindly provided by Neil Burridge.



Burning the Circle

Burning Before the Mountain

The power of the place became apparent long before the burning began.

When the final timber was erected, we knew there was something potent at this location.

Antler Dig

Perhaps it was the result of our physical labour, of breaking earth with antler pick, heaving timbers into place.  Or maybe it was the growing mood of anticipation amongst those who built this place about what was going to come next: a nervous excitement, an uncertainty of what exactly would happen as night fell, and what the following morning would witness.

Spoil Or perhaps it was the way the mountain top back-dropped the site.  Or maybe it was knowing that you had created something tangible, solid, yet nothing more than a series of fleeting frames.

Wooden Circle

And then there was the creation of a central focus, a figure head, a guardian.  Around which deposits were placed, pottery made by the roundhouse located lower down the hillside.

Carving Head

And, as the sunset, we were ready to commence.


It was time, the right time, to burn the circle.

As the light faded, as day was stolen by night, we seized back the light, as the timbers began to blaze.

Ceremony 2

It was transformed, another world, another place, of night and fire.

Burning the Circle

For nearly four hours, we fed more fuel, creating an insatiable heat.

The guardian in the centre of the circle looked on.

Glowing sternly, in quiet contemplation of the events.

Guardian of Fire

In the centre, did it sit between one world and another, night and day, past and present, the sacred and the profane.  What strange things did the guardian see ?

Other Worlds

Hours passed so quickly, months of planning, collection of masses of wood, moving soil and timber, the other world we temporarily created burnt less brightly, faded…

…our past.

Worlds Below

Yet we were left the next morning with the proud timbers, survivors around the guardian.


Only two companions had fallen in the night, others had burnt nearly through but stood on, what seemed to be precarious bases, slender charcoal sticks.

Fallen Stump

Then we left the other world.

Trowel our instrument of divining the past. A past so recent, its smell permeated our hair and clothes, our eyes still blazed with a reflection of the night before.


So, faithful trowel revealed that, despite masses of fuel (nearly five hours of burning in the night), once the wind had blown ash away and when ground was eroded away, beneath the topsoil there would be no significant trace of the burning to the archaeologist of the future.  In time, only the post-holes, would reveal we were ever there at all.


Yet as we departed, we knew we left something more behind, a tangible place overlooked by the mountain.

Place of Fire

They say the guardian still watches from the hillside,

most times it stands a lonely vigil.

But I am sure it has visitors, who mark special times,

who seek a place of quiet contemplation,

a place permeated by a vivid, visceral, vibrant, burning past.


Burning the Circle was a festival of the Bronze Age delivered in July 2013 in partnership with Northlight Heritage, the National Trust for Scotland, the University of Glasgow and the Isle of Arran Brewery to raise awareness of and celebrate the prehistoric remains on the Isle of Arran. 
There is evidence for timber circles having been built on Isle of Arran, on Machrie Moor, over 4000 years ago.  There are some excavated examples of prehistoric ceremonial monuments in Scotland and beyond where the soil has scorched deep into the ground when they were destroyed by fire.  As part of the event, the timber circle was built for experimental firing to begin to explore what archaeological traces the burning of timber structures may leave behind and to better understand what circumstances are most visible to the archaeologist.
Many thanks to Marvin Elliott for undertaking the fantastic carving with bronze tools. The event was greatly helped by the expertise, in other forms of pyro-technology, of Graham Taylor and Neil Burridge: amazing insights from both.  For another perspective on the events, please visit the Urban Prehistorian.  Big thanks to Corinna, Kenny, Richard, Joss, Steven, Katy, Katie, Kate, Ingrid and Derek they made it all possible.  Looking forward to next years event….!

Gallus Inscription

Gallus CarvingGallus: in Glasgow, bold, confident, slightly reckless, perhaps…!


For more Gallus-ness see The Gallus Games

Objective: conversation on sculpture

Objective, A Citywide Conversation on Sculpture, is taking place in Glasgow with 16 venues across the city exhibiting sculpture, events and performances in March and April.

Having seen the map showing the locations of the venues, one lunchtime I had a quick conversation with sculpture.  First I visited the Patricia Fleming Projects Art in the Public Realm exhibition at South Block which detailed the development of two projects.

Patricia Flemining exhibitionI then dashed through the streets of Glasgow to the excellent Gallery of Modern Art  (GOMA).  As a bonus I stumbled across a piece of public art I had never spotted before (too many lunches in front of the computer !).  Built into the wall of a restored B-listed building (named The Subirachs Building) is a carved sandstone Bust:

‘The Client’s love of the City of Barcelona was expressed by the insertion of an inverse Bust in the Main facade sculpted by the Catalan artist Josep Maria Subirachs who is responsible for work on Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.’

Subirachs SculptureSlightly out of breath, I arrived at GOMA and passed the Statue of Wellington resplendently adorned with his usual modern hat !

GOMA wellingtonInside GOMA I had time for a brief exploration of the exhibition ‘Every Day’. It comprises sculptures from six Glasgow artists which explore familiar objects, juxtaposing, and reworking them in different media.  A glimpse of these is provided through Tim Steads wooden viewing room ‘The Peephole’.

Peephole views ObjectiveI will not reveal anymore, other than to say that there are some striking and thought provoking individual pieces, together which are well worth a journey to GOMA to explore further.  Further details of Objective can be found at the GOMA wordpress website or downloaded on pdf map.

And if you cant come to Glasgow,

go explore your city, your neighborhood, for sculpture and take part in the conversation….


In recent years excavations on Skye have explored a remarkable cave, High Pasture Cave, and rock shelter, Fiscavaig.  Discoveries at both sites suggest they were the focus for ritual, feasting and burial during the Iron Age: more details can be found here.

There will be a free day seminar ‘Underworld: the use of caves, rock shelters and underground places during the Scottish Iron Age’ in Inverness on the 27 April.  Speakers will present on the results of excavation and analysis of these sites, and it should prove to be a very interesting (illuminating !) day.

Illuminating the Darkness The experience of being within cave sites is a topic which I have blogged briefly on before in relation a conference last year on Neolithic and Bronze Age ritual activity in underworlds.  The experience of both the sites on Skye would have been particularly heightened by their landscape context, High Pasture Cave being deep underground with a burn flowing through the limestone of Skye, and the Fiscavaig being at the foot of overhanging basalt sea-cliffs.  The interplay of light, water, sound and rock would have undoubtedly contributed to aspects of ritual at these sites.


Please contact Highland Council Historic Environment Team to confirm your free place at the Underworld day seminar now. Telephone: 01463 702504 Email:

The pictures have been kindly provided by J Sievewright who experienced the remarkable adventure of descending into High Pasture Cave on a trip exploring an art project inspired by the site.

Palace of Light and Shadows

It was the first time I had been to the Kibble Palace, at Glasgow Botanic Gardens, at night and it was remarkable how different the experience was: plants brooding and sullen, shadows cast in sharp relief, the sounds muted…!

The Kibble Palace was originally built in 1873 and was subject to major refurbishments completed in 2006.  As part of this refurbishment, the late 19th and early 20th century Neo-classical figurative marble sculptures were retained and complemented by new interpretation including a striking series of fused glass panels.  Further details of these and the Botanic Gardens Heritage Trail can be found in a leaflet: which also has a remarkable story of where a large part of the Kibble Palace originated from !

The Kibble Palace has also just been used as a fantastic location for a light and sound installation, Heliotrope. The installation explored the relationships between people and light, in particular the impact light can have on our minds and bodies, and highlighted the long shadow that can be cast by Seasonal Affective Disorder.

The installation, subtle and compelling, really needs to be experienced, as it comprised a remarkable sound scape of resonant drones and chimes, by sound artist Hanna Tuulikki, but with a haptic element to this with sound (I think) in part emerging through the floor.  Gradually changing hues, levels and directions of light evoked, diurnal rhythms and annual solar motion, but appeared to be interspersed with micro-flashes of light.

If the Palace of Light and Shadows was brought alive for me through Heliotrope by the installations producers Trigger, I cant wait to see what they do next following Zombie Lab….

Scotland’s Community Heritage

Community archaeology and heritage projects in Scotland have grown remarkably in numbers in recent years.  This growth can in part be attributed to the results of the RCAHMS run project, Scotland’s Rural Past, Shorewatch by The Scape Trust, and the work of Archaeology Scotland, such as Adopt-a-Monument, together which have helped increase the capacity for community led archaeology and heritage projects.

The ways in which Scotland’s communities have been engaging with there heritage was recently explored at Scotland’s Community Heritage Conference 2012.  On the first day of the conference there was a wide range of presentations about community led archaeological and heritage project from across Scotland.  These included: the work of the Garden History Society and Angus Landscape Survey Group in recording historic elements of local landscapes; the Clyne Heritage Society on the Brora Salt Pans; excavations at Baliscate, Mull; the work of NOSAS at the Mulchaich, Ferintosh; and insights about the establishment and work of the Friends of Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust.

What became apparent very quickly, from the exhibitions and presentations on the day, was that there was a remarkable range of skills amongst the groups.  Combined with their energy and enthusiasm, it was a truly impressive and inspiring series of project results which were presented.  With a warmth and good humor amongst the conference delegates (and learning that apparently all Scottish Community Heritage Projects were fueled by cake !) it was a great day.

I really look forward to hearing more at next years conference about the successes of Scotland’s communities who are actively engaging with their archaeology and heritage.

Above Scotland’s Landscapes

Our perception of the world was radically altered when the first images of the green and blue planet were received from space.  Similarly, when we fly (if we are lucky enough to get a window seat !) the views of towns, fields, woodlands, coastlines and mountains reveal patterns we can never see with our feet on the ground.

A fantastic new exhibition Above Scotland has just started at The Lighthouse.  It has been produced jointly between The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and Architecture and Design Scotland and explores Scotland’s cultural landscapes from aerial photographic evidence.

The exhibition comprises a wide number of high quality aerial images which show the remarkable diversity and richness of Scotland’s landscapes.  The provision of large interactive magnifiers at each display panel not only gives a sense of viewing the landscape through a plane window but also allows you to explore in more detail the complexity of the landforms, monuments and vegetation from above.

As well as the panels, there are several engaging, and fun short films, produced as part of the project.  These show the responses of local school children to local places as captured through their own aerial photography.  The exhibition is also complemented by the publication of a new book Scotland’s Landscapes.

It runs from 26th October 2012 to 23 January 2013, so plenty of time to go and get a different perspective on Scotland’s Landscapes…!


Into The Earth: The Archaeology of Darkness

Landscape is experienced in a range of variable conditions, such as different weather and temperatures, changing light conditions and degrees of illumination.  Most of our contemporary experience of landscapes is during daylight, or if not, in urban contexts under harsh street lighting.

Moving through a landscape at night can be in remarkable contrast to daytime.  It can also be a highly variable experience: from traveling in what at first seems complete darkness through woodland on a cloudy moonless night, to walking along mountain paths on the night of a full moon.  The senses respond differently…

And nothing can compare to being in the true darkness of a deep cave with no illumination…!

At the end of the month, there is going to be what look to be a very interesting a conference, Into the Earth: The Archaeology of Darkness, at the Institute of Technology, Sligo.

One theme which will be explored is the ways in which individuals and darkness interacted in the past, and how this may have transformed places in the landscape in due course.