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Arthur’s Oven, the former Roman Antiquity near Falkirk, demolished in 1743

Arthur’s Oven (described at the time by Sir John Clerk as “the best and most entire old building in Britain”) was demolished in 1743 by Sir Michael Bruce despite all entreaties, because he wished to use its stones to construct a mill dam – even though, in the words of  Sir John Clerk, he could have easily obtained them “in his own quarrys for 5 shillings”. The parallel with Tarmac PLC’s behaviour at Thornborough Henges 260 years later could hardly be closer.

And that’s not the only parallel with nowadays.  According to Pennant in his Tour in Scotland (1772), within less than a year there was a flood that “entirely swept it [the mill-dam] away“! Rather like Tara where, within a year of the destruction caused by the mania for a motorway to be pushed through, an economic tsunami has swept away every excuse or reason for it!

Nothing changes it seems, people will always grab things for personal advantage, and tell porkies to cover their tracks, but the current concern is that it will happen more as a result of the recent government cuts. For instance, English Heritage used to visit most scheduled monuments annually, which was hardly adequate in itself but how often will they be able to now? Just as Sir Michael Bruce initially claimed Arthur’s Oven had fallen down accidentally, many farmers these days have ploughed into dolmens “accidentally” and many developers have accidentally backed JCBs into inconvenient features. Will there be a rise in such instances? The current call by Mike Heyworth of  CBA for the public to fill some of the looming “care gap” seems particularly relevant and well timed.

But of course, for that to be fully effective it will require enough people to be rendered sufficiently well-informed and consequently sufficiently angry about and alert to heritage threats. Back in 1743 there was no pulling of punches by those in the know, the proto-archaeologists. Maybe some of their sort of righteous anger and plain speaking about the destruction of Arthur’s Oven might be profitably employed by the archaeological establishment against heritage threats these days?!

Roger Gale to William Stukeley: “I don’t doubt but you will lay him under the same anathemas as Thomas Robinson, and other such sacrilegious rascalls ; and if there is a pitt deeper than ordinary destined for the reception of such villains and sordid rascalls, condemn him to the bottome of it.

William Stukeley to Roger Gale: “From the bottom of my heart [I ]detest so abominable a stonekiller as that impious wretch, that demolisher of temples,Sir Michael Bruce. May his name be as odious to posterity as
Herostratus’s [Stukeley’s name for Tom Robinson of Avebury]; and may he be condemned to lye 10,000 years in the sorry mildam, where he buryed those sacred stones, and still thirst on, Tantalus-like.

And when the Reverend Stukeley later became fully wound up he wrote this:

The demolition of Arthur’s Oon [Oven] is a most grievous thing to think on. I would propose, in order to make his name execrable to all posterity, that he should have an iron collar put about his neck like a yoke ; at each extremity a stone of Arthur’s Oven to be suspended by the lewis in thc hole of them: thus accoutred, let him wander on the banks of Styx,- perpetually agitated by angry demons with ox-goads; Sir Michael Bruce wrote on his back, in large letters of burning phosphorus.

(Harsh but fair, perhaps a good template for many modern instances of heritage theft!)

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