Sighthill, Glasgow: a Megalithic Monument Going Back and Forth in Time

Earlier this summer, the Sighthill Megalith, close to Glasgow city centre underwent some serious restoration work, being moved, re-sited, and ‘re-sighted’, so as to be aligned with the sun on Summer Solstice.


The original monument was built in 1979 as part of a Glasgow Parks Department job creation scheme, but on the election of Margaret Thatcher’s government, the funding was pulled before the stones could be placed accurately, according to astronomical alignments. Indeed, the whole 1970s build-phase had some serious astronomical issues anyway, being placed in the ‘wrong location’ because the original site chosen was deemed unsuitable since it turned out that a large slab-block of flats would have obscured the view of the sun on the Solstice!

Sighthill with flats

The Glasgow Herald (page 8, 19th June 2017) described the realignment work that was taking place during the 2017 Solstice week as “recreating Britain’s first authentically – and accurately – aligned stone circle to have been erected in more than 3000 years”. The Herald highlighted the way that the Sighthill stones mirrored certain key Neolithic sites in Scotland such as those at Callanish in Lewis and at Stennes in Orkney. In many ways, this effort reflects a distinctly ‘national’ project, with a specific ambition to make links to famous ‘Scottish’ Neolithic sites, and is described by the project’s champion, Alasdair Gray, as work that “continues a Prehistoric Scottish tradition”. Thus, the building work acts to requisition the efforts of people from the Neolithic period (who would certainly have had no conception of a “Scotland”) into being a baseline of cultural and technological development for a distinctly ‘Scottish’ nation. In this respect, these actions mirror the Scottish National Museum’s attempt to place the Pictish carved monument at ‘Hilton of Cadboll’ within a distinctly ‘Scottish’ linear narrative of cultural development (see the work of Sian Jones, and also Harvey 2015). However, while the Hilton of Cadboll stone is a ‘genuine’ Pictish carved stone, placed at the ‘start’ of a story of national artistic progress, the Sighthill Megalith is a product of a 1970s urban job creation scheme, in search of ancient antecedents. Mind you, as Sian Jones notes, whatever the material origins of the Hilton stone, its meaning today should also acknowledge the adherence of the present day population to the stone as having contemporary meaning for the people in the village. So what should we make of the Sighthill Megalith?


By providing a seemingly direct link to a suitable deep past, it seems to supply an air of legitimacy to the nation of Scotland; of originary solidity to a sense of linear inevitability in Scottish progress. On the other hand, the story also tells of a more recent past; one of post-war urban redevelopment schemes in Glasgow, the emasculation of local government and the attitudes of Thatcherism to local artistic practice, and perhaps a desire to do things better.

Rebuilding in the name of ‘conservation’ is a common practice that tends to overturn neat ideas about there being a palimpsest of archaeological layers. Wilkinson and Harvey (2017) found that the regular rebuilding of Tarr Steps in Exmoor after each flood was at the heart of what made Tarr Steps an ‘ancient monument’ (see also this blog: The Sighthill Megalith, however, differs from Tarr Steps (or the Hilton stone), since there is never a pretence of built material continuity – no-one would claim that the Sighthill stones are ‘Neolithic’ in a material sense.

Sighthill building work

The images of the Sighthill stones being re-positioned and re-alligned are reminiscent of the re-building of famous Neolithic sites such as Avebury and Newgrange. Indeed, at Newgrange, there was a similar effort to re-align the stones according to the Solstice – the Winter Solstice in the case of Newgrange. These efforts seem intent on producing what might be described (following Umberto Eco) as a ‘simulacrum’, where the copy is better and more real than the original. But I’m not sure that this is very fair either. For one thing, again, there is no pretence of the site being literally ‘from the deep past’, and for another thing, while sites such as Avebury and Newgrange were rebuilt in a stridently national cause, a deeper look at the Sighthill Megalith reveals a distinctly locally orientated and more humble initiative.

Thus, the Sighthill Megalith seems to be a much more open and future-orientated example of heritage-making in process. The re-siting and re-sighting efforts do not seem to be activities of ‘completion’, nor (despite some of the rhetoric in the Scottish press) do they seem to be overtly ‘national’. Rather, they appear to be commemorative of earlier skills (call them ‘Scottish’ or not!), and provide a canvass for future memory practice. Glasgow City Council officials talk brightly of how the “Sighthill megalith will be a key feature of the new Sighthill, [with] its new life emblematic of the rebirth of the area”; (I guess they need to say such things to underline the value of ongoing urban redevelopment work). But as an imaginative piece of heritage work that allows an open-ended sense of enchantment to bubble to the surface, I have a lot of time for the re-sighted Megalith site of Sighthill!

Sighthill _flowers-at-sighthill

Harvey D.C. (2015) ‘Heritage and scale: settings, boundaries and relations’, International Journal of heritage Studies, volume 21(6), pp. 577-593.

Wilkinson, T. and Harvey, D.C. (2017) ‘Managing the future of the past: images of Exmoor landscape heritage’, Landscape Research, DOI: 10.1080/01426397.2017.1315380.

(Pictures all from Google Images).





Absence makes the heart grow fonder: Modern iconoclasm and the meaning of heritage

It has taken me a good while to put together this blog post – since it has taken me a while to try and make sense of the ‘destruction’ of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra, in Syria, by the ‘So-Called-Islamic-State’ (IS) last August. Indeed, the fact that I am writing it now doesn’t mean that I have somehow found ‘sense’ in these events, only that I feel that I am getting to a point where I can make some connections that can place the actions into a meaningful cultural, political-economic and longer temporal context, which I hope has some useful purchase. The pause has also enabled me to have several very interesting conversations with students – MA Sustainable Heritage students in Aarhus, Denmark, and final year BA Geographers in Exeter – and the thoughts in this blog have very much benefitted from these stimulating discussions.


It is testament to the power of UNESCO branding that many front pages of newspapers and slots on prime time news were taken up by reporting on the ‘destruction’ of Palmyra, and particularly the Temple of Bel. ‘UNESCO’ has become a globally recognized brand and a valuable commodity for a heritage site to possess. According to the UNESCO Website for Palmyra ( “An oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences”.

In other words, ‘from’ the 1st/2nd century, whose value is founded on specific cross-cultural architectural elements, recognized through expert aesthetic judgements. It is a site that is in Syria, but valued for its cross-cultural (tansnational) associations, though very little mention is made of the site’s story outside of a block of time of a few hundred years, around 2000 years ago.

The notion of a World Heritage Site conveys a sense of universality of certain values and heritage assets that should be treasured and preserved. But what are these values? And what is universal about them? Despite some broadening towards the intangible in recent years, much of the literature and policy documents surrounding World Heritage Sites focus almost entirely on physical objects and buildings, especially those of prestige nature, such as temples. It is on this basis that the newspaper reports on Palmyra in late 2015 focused on the ‘destruction’ of heritage. But what was actually happening with regards to ‘heritage’? Is ‘Palmyra’ really being ‘destroyed’, and what are the consequences of this action? And, if we make room for recognizing the intangible, and the value of certain practices, then can the practice destroying the remains of already ‘ruined’ buildings (and a fairly new heritage centre) be considered as ‘intangible heritage’. After all, there is a very long tradition around the world of such iconoclastic destruction, as a meaningful cultural practice.

In the first place, why did the blowing up of a visitor centre, a few old statues and some dusty ruins merit more coverage – in terms of column inches and airtime – than the brutal murder of Khaled al-Asaad (aged 82) the Principal Keeper of Antiquities at Palmyra, or the execution of many other civilians and captured soldiers at the World Heritage Site?

Khaled al-asaad

Khaled Al-Asaad, executed by IS fighters

Without wishing to sound slightly shrill with moral outrage, the murder of this man, together with the daily (and largely unreported – beyond the generic) killing and maiming of individual civilians in Syria is far worse than the bull-dozing of a few old ruins. Certainly, we have seen too many newspaper front pages with terrifying images of death in recent years. But these make the front page images of Palmyra all the more strange, since almost every newspaper went with a version of showing the space where Palmyra used to be – presence, marked through absence. Indeed, many of the newspaper images required a ‘before’ and ‘after’ shot, so that the viewer could ‘see’ what they were (literally) not seeing; a photo of ‘nothing’, where the lack of anything is the point being made.

Palmyra relote sensing images

Before and After Photos of Palmyra


But what is Palmyra? The UNESCO description notes simply that it is a city and temple complex from the 1st/2nd Centuries AD – as though it is somehow ‘stuck in time’, which somehow does not exist in any other period.

If we take a look at the longer ‘biography’ of the site, we find that the ‘Temple of Bel’ (destroyed by IS in 2015) was also destroyed over 1700 years ago. It was actually only the ‘Temple of Bel’ for a few hundred years. It was ‘destroyed’ first in the 3rd Century AD; repaired as a fort, and then converted into a Christian Church during the Byzantine era. It was transformed again into a Mosque in the 7th century, and then a citadel/mosque in the 12th century. By the time of the Ottoman Empire, in the 16th century, Palmyra was just a small village within the ruins of the old ‘temple’, but it was used as a garrison and prison in the 19th century, before the French turned it into a ‘site of antiquity’ in the 1920s. By removing the local population (and transferring them to a newly built village nearby), it is the French who made this site a declared item of ‘heritage’, to be understood within the context of colonial power structures and western-European renditions of architectural categorization – and a site without people.

The ‘Temple of Bel’ has only been The Temple of Bel for about 200 of the last 2000 years; a ‘universal’ site of heritage that is now universally known as a ‘former World Heritage Site’ – an empty space; now more famous and well known in popular culture around the world than it ever was as a built edifice. This ‘destruction’ is just the latest phase of the site’s ongoing biography, and for most of this time the Temple has been in ruins. Like the Atlantis of legend, the site is now generally known through its destruction – more in the public mind than ever. Like Atlantis, the non-existence of the site conveys a sort-of lesson – it perhaps has agency and an affective capacity. In its absence, it is perhaps more ‘present’ than it ever was as a managed ruin.


In the absence of tangible buildings, perhaps the heritage of Palmyra can do more work, and carry more burden of meaning, than it ever could as a ‘well preserved ruin’ of a once-destroyed Temple complex?

For IS, it stands for ‘the West’, and so its destruction can potentially send a powerful message of anti-Western sentiment. For the West, the World Heritage Site stood as a representative of universal human spirit and ingenuity and its wonton destruction is heinous barbarism – only that it is perhaps a bit more difficult to be so angry about the destruction of a former colonial prison and a heritage visitor centre than it is about the ‘Temple of Bel’.

In some popular reports, the destruction is portrayed as being ‘unparalleled’, but of course it isn’t. Perhaps the most famous parallel in recent years is the Bamiyan Statues in Afghanistan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001



Bamiyan Statues: before and after ‘destruction’, and as simulacrum, ‘better-than-the-original’ 3D laser image

Western commentators were very upset by the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – but, of course, the West is not really an innocent party when it comes to ‘destroying’ heritage in a purposeful manner.

In the 20th century, the easiest parallels, perhaps, can be found in the so-called Baedeker Raids of the Second World War, in which the Germans bombed several ‘heritage cities’ in the UK, including Bath and Exeter in 1942 – in response to the RAF bombing the heritage city of Lubeck in northern Germany.


Lubeck in Flames

March 1942, Lubeck in flames (above); April 1942, Bath and Exeter bombed (below)


But the history of such iconoclastic activity is actually much longer and more ingrained than these iconic events from the practices associated with colonial violence to the obvious examples connected to the Reformation and Wars of Religion; of Reformers tearing down and destroying what they saw as the imagery and memorials of ‘idolaters’. Interestingly, in the case of some iconoclastic acts carried out in the 16th/17th centuries, the actual destruction has ended up being a valued component of ‘heritage’ – an important element of the life history of a site. In other words, making reference to iconoclastic actions becomes a powerful means of managing the past in reference to the present and future.

As my blog post from December 2014 notes, such activity can raise an interesting paradox:

“If an authentic medieval statue is damaged, perhaps with iconoclastic zeal, then what should be conserved?: Should such a badly eroded statue be left to its own devices (eventually to dissolve into nothing)?, be replaced with a ‘new’ – but similarly damaged – replica (thus ‘preserving’ a semblance of the iconoclast’s authentic ire)?, or be replaced by a replica that tries to copy the medieval original (assuming that the design is known)?”



Exeter Cathedral-statue

Preserving iconoclasm (Exeter Cathedral)

If referring to the ‘heinous nature’ of an act of iconoclasm has such power, then it is in the interests of those that are shocked by such apparent barbarity that we should ‘preserve the memory’ of the iconoclast; as warning and/or as memorial. While much of Lubeck has been carefully rebuilt – to erase the memory of the RAF’s ‘visit’ in March 1942 (and perhaps to gloss over the memory of Nazism) – there are also many examples where ruins are preserved ‘as ruins’ to act as meaningful memorial marker.


Charles Cross Church-plymouth2

Charles Cross Church ruin, Plymouth

When managing built heritage, remembering (and preserving?) iconoclasm is vital. In the case of the World Trade Center in New York, the absent building has become an iconic element of heritage through the process of its destruction. In other words, its resonant meaning as heritage relies on the narrative of its destruction; and so destruction precedes its meaning as heritage. The World Trade Center is now marked both by a very large building, and by a memorial space on the site of the old World Trade Center footprint. Entitled ‘Reflecting Absence’, it is a prompt from the past, which is managed in the present with an eye to the future.



‘Reflecting Absence’, World Trade Center, New York

Perhaps this is more like martyrdom, in which an act of destruction and death is required to produce something more potent. The site of a martyrdom might be marked by memorials and buildings (etc.); monuments to an act of destruction, the memory of which requires preservation to be powerful and meaningful. The death of a saint is often a crucial element for their memory to be powerful: ‘this is the site on which an event took place. Look on and be a witness to destruction’.

In many ways, the easy dualism between ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’ heritage draws a false distinction; all heritage, ultimately, is intangible. With Palmyra, we are asked to look and witness a space of absence – a space of destruction. We are witnesses to the power of heritage, not as a tangible thing, but as an idea.



What should we do with the statue of Cecil Rhodes?

Back in April 2015, I wrote a blog about the high profile politics surrounding the Cecil Rhodes statue in Cape Town University. After becoming a focus of protest, alongside a good deal of social media pressure, the Cape Town University authorities removed the statue. The high profile of the case, however, has since provoked some similar public debates within Oriel College, Oxford; Rhodes’s Alma Mata.

Cecil John Rhodes

On the one hand, while Cecil Rhodes was a philanthropist for Oxford educationalists and international scholars, he was undeniably also a leading imperialist and racist – but would it be fair to cast judgement according to 21st century moral sensibilities? On the other hand, whatever we might think about Cecil Rhodes as a human being, would the removal of his statue actually achieve anything?

Many voices within the media have been uncomfortable about what they see as the anachronistic application of 21st century value judgements on historical figures. A reading of late 19th and early 20th century debates, however, would soon reveal how reviled Cecil Rhodes was by many sections of society at the time. Indeed, William Morris’s News from Nowehere (published in 1890) contains a blistering critique of late 19th century imperial expeditions by leading figures such as David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley. As usual in such debates, however, the application of critical heritage perspectives pertains less to historical anachronisms or otherwise, but rather to the contemporary politics of the past, and to the unfolding life history of the monument.


In some of my previous blogs, I quite liked the playful embellishment of the Wellington Monument in Glasgow, as well as the more overt critique of the General Buller statue in Exeter (November 2014 and July 2015) – the ‘victim’ of some ‘guerrilla memorialisation’ tactics. I was supportive of the removal of the Rhodes statue in Cape Town (April 2015 blog), viewed within the context of contemporary politics in South Africa, but what does this mean for Oriel College, Oxford?


Dena Latif, writing in the Guardian, has written persuasively that the removal of the Rhodes statue might act as a sort of problematic attempt to draw a veil over the past, making ourselves feel better now by pretending that the embarrassing Cecil Rhodes didn’t exist: “The statue should stay – and remind us that Oxford has much to do to redress its racial imbalances … Keep Rhodes up. And let’s admit that racial inequality lives on”.

This is a strong argument, and certainly one that we have seen elsewhere, such as with the case of the Jan-Peter Coen statue, in the Dutch town of Hoorn (reported in an excellent academic paper by Lisa Johnson). In Hoorn, the JP Coen statue was literally ‘put on trial’ in the town’s Museum, and a public vote led to the decision to keep the statue as a reminder of the highly problematic colonial past within the town. As Johnson notes, however, while the public debate and mock ‘trial’ stimulated a good deal of recognition and soul searching over the legacy of Holland’s slave trading past, it also arguably allowed other on-going post-colonial debates to be glossed over.

According to this line of thinking, the act of keeping the JP Coen statue as a reminder of colonial enterprises of the 17th century might act somehow to package up ‘colonial horror’ as a set of issues that had been dealt with. For Lisa Johnson, this meant that the public display of ‘contrition and regret’ during the ‘trial’ of JP Coen’s statue meant that more recent Dutch colonial wrong-doings in Indonesia (for instance), and the wider on-going legacy of Dutch imperial experiences and ambitions are somewhat side-lined. In other words, this most recent phase in the life history of the JP Coen memorial has seen it change from being a problematic monument to a past colonialist, in to being a celebratory monument to contemporary liberal anti-racist Dutch social attitudes. This is a potential by-product of ‘critical contextualisation’ practices, such as fixing an extra (critical) plaque onto an existing monument.

With respect to the Rhodes monument at Oriel College Oxford, therefore, we need to ask ourselves what a strategy of ‘critical contextualisation’ might actually do. In other words, if a plaque was added that outlined the more unsavoury colonial endeavours of Cecil Rhodes as a means to encourage some critical reflection, would this be OK? Within the confines of the overwhelmingly white spaces and privileged realms of Oxford University, I would worry that such a gesture might just act as a self-congratulatory epitaph of contemporary liberal idealism.

I think the debate has been a good thing. Rather than being about what we ought to do (or not do) with a memorial in an Oxford College, however, it ought to be prompting us to reflect more broadly about issues of race, inequality and marginalisation in present society, and spur us to call for a transformation in the future.


The Continuing Life History of the General Buller Statue

I have regularly written about monuments and statues having an on-going and open-ended ‘life history’: how the Wellington Monument in Glasgow has arguably received a new lease of life through its popular embellishment with traffic cones that are tacitly accepted by the authorities (blog from November 2013). I also talked about a similar ‘playful’ engagement with the General Buller statue in Exeter, back in November 2014. More recently, (April 2015) I wrote a blog about the high profile politics surrounding the Cecil Rhodes statue in Cape Town University. After becoming a focus of protest, alongside a good deal of social media pressure, the Cape Town University authorities removed the statue. In my blog on the issue, I related the case to that of the Jan-Peter Coen statue, in the Dutch town of Hoorn (reported in an excellent academic paper by Lisa Johnson) where the emergent biography of JP Coen’s statue was closely tied to an on-going (post)colonial political debate.

What I said in my blogs was that the ‘life histories’ or ‘biographical stories’ of such statues need to be uncovered in a critical light. Well, I was recently walking past the General Buller statue in Exeter and noticed that these various strands of thinking seemed to come together in General Buller’s latest iteration:

Buller with added notes1

In my blog on the Buller statue last year (November 2014), I had indicated a potential for this site to become a more potent and explicit site of contestation, and I feel somewhat vindicated that this has now come to pass!

Buller with added notes2

While much of the longstanding ‘public engagement’ with General Buller’s equestrian statue has always tended to operate in the playful mode of embellishing the statue with traffic cones (or, back in May, with a fetching boa-style ruff), these most recent embellishments have striven to make a more overt political statement. As I noted in my Buller blog, this was always a likely site for such politicised ‘guerrilla memorialisation’ activity, with a strong potential for a more radical message.

As I said in my blog last year, while the playful engagement with the Buller statue might act to subvert the authoritative overtones of such imperial statuary, it might also tame the potential for a more critical story. Whether the perpetrators of this most recent manifestation of political messaging read my blog is probably doubtful; more likely, they were inspired by the widely circulated protests and debates over other statues, such as that of Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town! Either way, someone has taken it on to themselves to make a critical statement about the meaning of the Buller statue in Exeter.

As I said in my previous blog on Buller, General Sir Redvers Buller was a key developer of war tactics that have dominated many of the 20th and 21st centuries’ conflicts, and arguably played an inadvertent role paving the way for trench warfare, concentration camps and gulags. As a master tactician of counter-insurgency operations, perhaps the use of ‘guerrilla memorialisation’ tactics for General Buller is really quite an appropriate gesture. And considering his role in British imperial endeavours of the later 19th and early 20th centuries, it is perhaps fitting that his statue has become a site of protest.

Crucially, however, rather than simply acting as a touchstone through which to talk about conflicts that are long gone, I would argue that the Buller statue can serve as a site of a more open-ended and contemporary debate. I think it is the reference to Buller’s alleged ‘war crimes’ that is perhaps most provocative in these latest additions: Firstly, it is suggestive of Lisa Johnson’s work on JP Coen in Holland – that on-going postcolonial issues can be meaningfully engaged with through a critical process of reflection. Maybe, as with JP Coen in the Dutch town of Hoorn, the Buller statue can be ‘put on trial’ and an open public debate can ensue. Secondly, and a related issue however, the mention of ‘war crimes’, I think, makes a knowing reference to another Dutch city; that of the Hague, where perpetrators of crimes during military conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere have been tried under International Law. What this link does, I feel, is bring home the present-centred and future-orientated axes of meaning that this dusty old statue can have. The home made cardboard adornments hanging from the Buller statue, giving notice of past conflicts are, therefore, strongly resonant of a heritage that is both an on-going process, but also something that has traction – it can ‘engage’ as well as being ‘engaged with’.