Tracing Falkirk’s 3500-year history — in just 10.5 objects

Opening the replica at Kinningars Park, the Bridgeness Tablet is the third object on Geoff Bailey's historic local trail
Opening the replica at Kinningars Park, the Bridgeness Tablet is the third object on Geoff Bailey's historic local trail

The History of Falkirk in 10 ½ Objects will be staged in the Second Floor Gallery at Callendar House from January 26 to May 4.

It is based on a talk I have given to many local societies over the last five years, as archaeologist and curator at Falkirk Museum for more than 30 years.

In the exhibition, I have tried to tell the 3500-year history of Falkirk and its area in just 10 and a half objects.

Each has a very personal story about the people who created it and used it.

It’s an amazing tale of invention, discovery, perseverance, artistic talent, hard work and the usual mayhem and slaughter!

It is a personal choice and someone else undertaking the task would undoubtedly make a different selection.

What would you choose? The museum collection can be viewed online at http://collections.falkirk.gov.uk so you might want to have a go.

The first of my 10.5 objects is the Denny Bow, found during the construction of a water plant in the Carron Valley in 1889.

This wooden object was first identified as a prehistoric paddle for a canoe. However, a comparison with more complete examples from across Europe showed that it was, in fact, the central part of a long bow for archery.

Bows were used for hunting food and are among the earliest long distance weapons depicted in cave art.

The skill involved in such hunts was readily recognised and the hunter was well thought of.

As a weapon the bow could, of course, be used against other people, earning its user even great status.

The simple wooden bow is an amazing creation.

Its shape optimises the elastic properties of the wood, allowing compression on one face at the same time as stretching on the other – followed by the rapid return to the un-deformed shape. Bow makers were experienced craftsmen.

The Denny Bow has been dated by radiocarbon assay to 1300BC, placing it in the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age.

This was a time when settled farming developed, though hunting continued as it does to this day.

What is particularly significant about the Denny Bow, and why it is our first object, is that it is made of oak – a species of wood that is not supple or elastic.

As a bow it would not have been effective.

So it is a symbolic rather than a utilitarian object and as such it illustrates mankind’s creativity with a long custom of attaching meaning to objects beyond their obvious attributes.

The Denny Bow must have been ceremonial – belonging to either a priest or a chief.

Given the nature of warfare and hunting, the latter is more likely. The bow may therefore be considered as an early predecessor of the provost’s chain of office, carried by the chief of Denny.

It reflects the structured nature of society in the Neolithic period and is a worthy object to start a history of the Falkirk area.

The second of our 10.5 objects is the Glenhead axehead mould, a block of sandstone unearthed in 1997 by pigs while they were grubbing around for food in a nettle-infested enclosure close to the farm of Glenhead in the Carron Valley.

Sandstone is found throughout Scotland, so it is impossible to identify the original source of the block that ended up at Glenhead.

But on one of its faces is the carefully carved negative impression of a flat axe whose artfully curved outline dates it to the early Bronze Age, around 2000 BC.

This was a transitional age that saw the introduction of tin as an alloy of copper to make bronze. The block measures 22cm long.

Small moulds such as this could be transported around the country so that scrap metal could be re-shaped into the latest fashion.

The Glenhead mould was probably the property of an itinerant bronze worker.

The reason it has been chosen as the second of the 10.5 objects is that it reflects the major technological shift that occurred in the Bronze Age with the development of metallurgy.

The notion of changing a lump of rock into a gracefully shaped functional metal object is transformative.

It must have seemed almost magical when it first occurred and early Celtic myths are replete with metal-working wizards.

The metal worker was a highly skilled and highly valued member of society. Their work was scarce and they worked for the main headmen of each area.

The third of our 10.5 objects is the Bridgeness Tablet, discovered in 1868 when a kailyard was being lowered during improvements to a dwelling at Bridgeness.

For several years the occupants of the house had walked over the upside down tablet. The landowner, Henry Cadell, subsequently donated it to the National Museum in Edinburgh, where it is now on display.

The Bridgeness Tablet was drawn soon after its discovery, along with the stones found with it.

A new method of recording the image had not long before become available – a photograph was taken with the gardener in the background.

Recently the latest technique was exploited and a laser scan was made.

The stone is the largest of a series of inscribed stones that once studded the second century Roman frontier wall built on the order of the emperor Antoninus Pius to replace Hadrian’s Wall.

Each commemorates the construction, by a named legion, of a stated length of the frontier.

The Bridgeness Tablet is by far the largest and most ornate of the distance stones, measuring 2.8 metres long.

Its inscription gives the various official names and titles of the emperor and states that the Second Legion built 4652 paces of the wall – which would have taken construction as far west as the River Avon.

The inscribed central panel has animal headed pelta terminals, typical of the mid second century AD.

To either side are scenes depicting the propaganda of Empire.

On the left, a brave noble Roman cavalryman is riding down what appears, at first glance, to be a group of four barbarians – the first real image that we have of the local people.

However, the figure may be viewed as a single combatant in four stages of subjugation. In the first, he still has a shield to defend himself but has already cast aside his sword. In the second he is cowering and has the broken end of a spear in his back. Then he is shown dejected and captive. Finally, the figure is beheaded.

Traces of Roman red paint have been found in the channelled out lettering but also, rather gruesomely, at the severed neck!

On the right side of the panel is a scene depicting the sacrifice of a pig, a bull and a sheep – a combination that shows this to be the act of souvetaurilia undertaken either at the start of a major military project or its successful conclusion.

Here, it surely commemorates the Antonine Wall’s completion.

Next week, we’ll explore the next four objects in this retelling of Falkirk’s history.