Forteviot

The visualisations below have all focussed on a prehistoric ceremonial complex located in Perthshire, Scotland, to the south of the modern village of Forteviot. Although the location was famously the site of King Kenneth MacAlpin’s palacium in the 9th century AD, Forteviot’s legacy as a power centre reaches much further back into prehistory. A late Neolithic timber palisade some 270 meters across forms one of the earliest and biggest construction in what was to become one of the largest prehistoric ceremonial landscapes in the British Isles. 

I have been lucky enough to have been involved in the excavations since the first season in 2007 and have worked closely with the SERF team to produce a series of visualisations over the past four years.

A (very rough – don’t judge!) pencil sketch of the prehistoric complex at Forteviot

In August 2009 a Late Bronze Age dagger burial was exposed when a recumbent standing stone which had been discovered during the previous season was lifted, revealing an intact cist chamber. The burial was located within a henge which had been constructed within the earlier palisade, marking a significant event in the life of the ceremonial complex.

The atmosphere on site the day the cist was uncovered was brilliant, and inevitably following the lifting of the stone there was a great deal of media buzz and speculation over the find.

Everyone understandably…and probably correctly jumped to the conclusion that this had been a highly revered and powerful individual who had been very lovingly and carefully laid to rest in this cist. However, over a flask of tea on site that afternoon, a few of my colleagues and I got to discussing alternative possibilities for the evidence uncovered that day. We speculated that contrary to the popular opinion, perhaps this person had not been such a wonderful individual. Maybe the large stone closing the grave had not been to impress his greatness – but instead had been necessity to ensure the individual stayed trapped where he was! Perhaps the dagger was not a sign of prestige, but the weapon which had been used to end this nasty character’s cruel existence?

And so, being an undergrad at the time with too much time on my hands, I spent the next few evenings creating a comic strip for the archaeologists working on site which offered an alternate view of the finds that summer…

I continued work on this project in 2010 when the timber palisade became the focus of my MSc dissertation at the University of Southampton. The digital reconstruction produced aimed to investigate the establishment and deterioration of the timber enclosure at Forteviot, visually mapping its lifetime within the context of the wider ceremonial complex using 3D modelling and animation (3ds max and vue xStream). The excavations have sampled different areas and periods amongst the monument complex over the past 4 years. Visualising the whole site over time brought a lot of the work together and offered an overview of the development of this unique prehistoric landscape over a period of a few hundred years.

A Neolithic character reaches out to touch one of the massive timbers within the avenue entrance to the monument – an image which became infamously dubbed “Neolithic Bob’s Monumental Erection”

Overview of the ‘Avenue’ entrance to the monument

The animation itself was split into five different scenes which all represented a period in the life of this monument,

A) The animation begins with a Mesolithic/Early Neolithic flint knapping scene which represents the earliest known activity on the site and implies that this locality was important prior to any monuments being built. By expanding the period of interest to include the early flint knapping activity on the site a whole new dimension to the establishment of the importance of the locale could be explored. The scene was inspired by Cummings’ (2002) theories on the establishment of important symbolic sites and ideas in the Mesolithic and Early Neolithic which led to the construction of the first monuments. Often we assume that the construction of monumental architecture and ‘ritualised deposits’ mark the beginnings of a spiritual connection to a place, but indeed it is often the case that the more routine day to day activities and rituals are the key to understanding the establishment of an important site.

B) This scene depicts the aftermath of a storm collapse which has opened a clearing in the forest; we see a character investigating the damage as one man raises his hands in disbelief. Here, the potential ritual significance of natural clearings within woodland was considered, justified by the super-natural power of the events which created them. We have evidence of tree throws at least in the area which has been excavated around the avenue, indicating mature tree fall. Is it possible that the ritual significance of the site at Forteviot began with a natural event which opened up the canopy of trees? As Brown (2000, 51) notes, it is difficult to assess the extent of damage possible in a prehistoric forest, but based on a survey of the modern forest in the Chiltern Hills, southeast England following a storm in 1987 it appears that clearances upwards of 80m are not uncommon.

C) The next scene is perhaps the most complex as it depicts the construction of the monument itself. The social complexity of the Neolithic society is something which was beginning to be suggested here as we enter the scene through a peripheral campsite with activity occurring in the distance. Through the eyes of a character within the scene we see organised groups of people transporting worked posts towards the monument, one character rubs paint onto a standing post with his hands, while another group push a post into place.

D) Given the ambiguity regarding the ‘purpose’ of these monuments (Gibson 2002) in this scene it was important to maintain a somewhat passive stance in terms of the storyline of the animation. This scene let the model tell the story as oppose to using the characters to provide narrative through their activity. We see the monument from the reflexive perspective of a character wandering around the peripheries of the enclosure, some hazy non-descript activity is visible within.

E) We cut to between 150 and 200 years into the life of the palisaded enclosure, the posts are beginning to deteriorate, any painting has long since faded. Many of the posts are leaning, we can see some have fallen over, others have rotted down and some appear charred from deliberate burning. Although the forest is more open than it was previously, areas of the monument have become overgrown, ‘reclaimed’ by nature. New monuments are beginning to be built, and we see a character walking towards the henge and timber circle to the west of the remains of the palisade.

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