Ask an Archaeologist: Kenny Brophy

Prehistories are very pleased to welcome Dr Kenny Brophy, (Urban Prehistorian extraordinaire), to take part in Ask an Archaeologist.


Ask an Archaeologist: Kenny Brophy

me low res

What is your specialism?

An interesting question! Traditionally I suppose I am regarded as a prehistorian, with a special interest in the Neolithic and early Bronze Age of Britain, with particular focus on Scotland. I have worked on ceremonial enclosures and stone rows, but more recently I have become more concerned with settlement and everyday life in the Neolithic. I have also for a long time been interested in landscape and how we experience this as prehistorians, and so earlier in my career I made a lot of use of phenomenology; plus I have dabbled in aerial archaeology and have a long standing interest in cropmarks. But over the past five or six years, my interests have evolved quite significantly – I would say I am now more interested in thinking about how the past impacts on us today and could shape our futures, and less on studying the past for the past’s sake if that makes any sense. I don’t think this has a name, perhaps I’m more of a heritage specialist now than archaeologist with a particular interest in how prehistoric traces appear to us in the contemporary landscape.


Why did you become an archaeologist?

I had no plans to be an archaeologist at all when I was at school, indeed it never crossed my mind. I had a vague idea of being a ‘scientist’, and then perhaps doing something with maps, but no clear plans. At Glasgow University, I was looking for a third subject to do with Geography and Geology, and a friend suggested Archaeology – so I did it and bought his course books cheaply from him. By the end of the first term, I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist, although doing what exactly I still did not decide for a year or two.

Which archaeologist (past or present) would you invite onto an excavation?

Alexander Keiller. I would love to hear his stories about fast cars, kinky sex and marmalade.

Choose one of the following: trowel; museum; archive; library; landscape; laptop.

Landscape is the easy choice for me. As a concept, regardless of how vague or how tricky to define, it captures for me what archaeology is all about. It concerns people and how they move about day to day, and it has a strong temporal dimension. The places that interest us as archaeologists – monuments, buildings, find spots, pits, settlements – are points within the landscape that were meaningful to people once, and still are to us, often for very different reasons. Landscapes can be places of economic transactions, but also be mythical and idealised. These kinds of contrasts fascinate me. Without landscape there would be no archaeology.

auchterarder standing stone

What is your dream find?

For many years now, I have hankered after finding a skull with rubies in the eyes, and a snake coming out of the mouth. I don’t know why.

Time travel, yes or no? (Give reasons)

No. What would it tell us really? All that would happen is that we would observe and record a whole load of other weird stuff that we would struggle to make sense of. The archaeological record is complex enough without another layer of confusion.

If you had to relocate to the past, which era would you move to?

That is tricky. I suppose, bizarrely, it would be the 19th century (AD!), at the birth of archaeology and so many other aspects of the modern world (good and bad). It would be fascinating to see the clash of politics, ideology, science and madness that seems to characterise that period. There was so much wrong, but also so much potential. I am not sure if I could relocate with self-awareness or not, but I hope I would be able to persuade barrow busters to stop busting barrows, and anatomists to stop measuring skulls, and put their minds and money to more useful and ethical pursuits.

Is there a work of art (e.g. novel, painting, music, film, etc) that has influenced you as an archaeologist?

A few writers have been very influential in my career. I have always loved the playful work of Georges Perec, and the English language compilation of some of his work – Species of spaces and other pieces – has informed my views on typology and classification, place and space, and even some of my fieldwork practices. His novel, Life: a user’s manual, is a story of obsession, places and puzzles that embodies deep time, which I love. More recently I have been heavily into the work of psychogeographic authors, such as Iain Sinclair, but more usefully still Peter Ackroyd. His novels Hawksmoor and First Light have, in very different ways, powerfully impacted on the way I conceive of archaeology.First Light front cover

My urban prehistory project is explicitly psychogeographical and the occult time-depth and resonance of place inherent in Hawksmoor (itself based on Sinclair’s Lud Heat) speaks to me more strongly than most archaeological approaches to landscape, place and things. The past awkwardly exists in ruinous and ghostly form in our modern, urban, shiny landscapes – but most archaeologists seem intent on editing out the modern and getting back to the now disappeared and dead past as if the present no longer existed. Ackroyd’s work suggests to me that our romantic notions about the past are not always helpful. In First Light, the investigation of a barrow by a group of archaeologists has traumatic and powerful implications. Maybe, as HP Lovecraft suggests, we should not be tampering with ancient, buried places – at all. And if we do, we had better be prepared for the consequences. I suppose these diverse sources all force me to think anew about archaeology, what it could be, what it could do, and I find these kinds of things very inspiring as well as unsettling.

Gorsadd stones graffiti

What are you working on at the moment?

Lots of things, it surprises me how busy I continue to be. I am involved in a very exciting collaboration with colleagues and PhD students that we have called Cycletree; we consider how landscape heritage can be used to deliver the aspirations of the European Landscape Convention. I am their prehistorian. There are field projects to wrap up – I am working on monographs for two field projects (in Perthshire, and Caithness) and winding down a series of excavations around the village of Dunning. My blog and urban prehistory project is a big part of what I do now, and I am developing various projects with a public-facing aspect such as working with school kids, leading walking tours, low level vandalism, planning community engagement events – plus speaking to non-archaeologists within and behind academia. Lots more too, I like being busy.


Many thanks to Kenny for taking part.

If you don’t already know his excellent blog, you can read it here.

Dr H

Click the links for more Ask an Archaeologist features and the Prehistories Contents page.





Artwork for Annihilation (by Eric Nyquist)

Our local bookshop has Dr A and me hooked on the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer.

The series is set in an unspecified point in the future, with the first book following a team of scientists as they enter the dangerous and carefully controlled Area X.

The landscape of Area X is dominated by lush vegetaion, but the ruins and remains of peoples lives and actions are to be found there too. Although she is a biologist, the narrator’s knack for observation and description would have made her an excellent archaeolgoist.

Near the start of the book, the team of scientists come across a structure – an inverted tower. Down the spiral stair case they find traces of living words written upon the walls.

The narrator describes  the writing and traces of former writing:

” there existed a ghosting of prior words…It was hard to read them – there were several overlapping strands that started and stopped and started up again. The number of such ghost scripts faded into the wall suggested this process had been ongoing for a long time.”

This passage made me think of Dr A’s paper on Irish passage tomb art. Discussing the art found inside the tombs he notes the “intense degree of superimposition” of images inside the tomb at Knowth, with primary images “providing a visual trace for subsequent reworking”.

Given a choice, I’d far rather take my chances with time travel and meeting the artists of Knowth and Newgrange than venture into Area X and risk meeting the author of the words in the tower.

Dr H





Doctor Who and the Stones of Blood

Dr A and I recently got our hands on an episode of the Stones of Blood – part of the Keys to Time series of Doctor Who featuring Tom Baker (broadcast 1978).

This has a cracking archaeology-themed storyline, which proves beyond doubt the animacy of archaeological remains.

The first two episodes are especially enjoyable. Filmed on location at the Rollright Stones, they feature a Druidic cult, a Celtic goddess, menacing corvids and two female prehistorians. What’s not to like?

I hate to give away a whole plotline, but it doesn’t take long to guess from their tendency to glow in the dark and their thirst for human blood, that there’s more to these standing stones than simple calcium carbonate.

While there’s a good deal of silliness in the episodes, there’s a good dose of atmosphere and horror too. The outfits and rituals are pretty effective and the sequence where two campers encounter the stones would have given me nightmares for days if I’d seen it when I was a child. Archaeologists – think twice before you pitch your tent too close to that stone circle…

The episodes draw on folklore relating to standing stones, name drops several genuine archaeologists and presumably draws inspiration from the pinnacle of archaeological TV drama Children of the Stones, which aired in 1977 and was filmed on location at Avebury.

Animism and animacy are topics archaeologists (including Dr A) have explored in recent years. The stones and rocks in the landscape around you now may not be randomly glowing or craving your blood, but people have recently been bombarded by beach pebbles, flung at their streets and houses by stormy seas. As the storms in SW England have demonstrated, the world around us is far from passive.

Dr H

Read more about archaeology and science fiction on the blog here.

Folklore Fridays: Torhousekie Cairn

Torhouse Stone Circle

Tourhouse Stone Circle, Photo by Gordon Hatton

Folklore Fridays return with the tale of Torhouskie Cairn (Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland).

Grinsell highlights this site as one example of how locals believed that disturbing archaeological remains also disturbed the ancient spirits that dwelt in them.

During the 19th century the cist slab from one of the cairns close to the Tourhouse Stone Circle (pictured) was removed and used to cover a water conduit. Following the slab’s reuse, numerous people claimed to have seen a light moving in the darkness, travelling from the cairn – along the route the slab had been taken – to its new resting place. Locals were then afraid to disturb or open any more tombs. However, subsequent generations seem to have been less fearful, as the RCAHMS website notes that very little remains of the cairn as “most of it has been removed to build walls”.

The stone circle itself is also associated with a piece of folklore, with the three largest stones being referred to as King Gauldus’s Tomb – this association going back to 1672. King Gauldus, or Galdus is a mythical Scottish King, who is allegedly also buried at  Cairn Holy II (also in Dumfries and Galloway).

The Historic Scotland website notes that the Torhouse stone circle is of Bronze Age date and is somewhat out of place in SW Scotland, having more in common with the recumbent stone circles of NE Scotland.