A walk with Sidney Jackson #5

SJ 4 FigIf you had been lucky enough to accompany SJ on a country walk you would not have progressed very far without the topic of carved stone heads being raised. They form regular entries in the Archaeology Group Bulletin. There is no doubt that he recognised, and brought to prominence, a huge number of these objects (in Yorkshire particularly) found in walls, as garden ornaments, and on the gables of houses or barns. His card index of heads listed 650 from all over the country, but particularly West Yorkshire (378), and was eventually given to the Yorkshire Archaeological Society. He considered that the heads were originally free-standing and distinguished them from gargoyles and corbels. He speculated that they might have been associated with springs and wells, or had an apotropaic function, being intended to ward off evil influences. He believed that the finding of heads indicated continuity of farming sites from prehistoric times until the 17th century.

SJ concluded that the heads were Romano-British or ‘Celtic’ in origin and were linked to a series of similar heads, described by his friend Dr Anne Ross in Scotland. To the best of my knowledge all the Yorkshire heads were surface finds none having been located in context at excavation. This represents an important difference with the celebrated and enigmatic Pictish stone carvings from Scotland. Some Pictish carved stones have been on the surface since they were executed about 1500 years ago, or have been incorporated into more modern buildings. But others have been found buried at excavation, for example a bear carving discovered at Old Scatness Broch by the Bradford University archaeology department. Not so with the Jackson heads.

So I, and indeed some of his contemporaries, couldn’t except the strange heads as having an Iron Age origin. In a stone quarrying area, where chisels and stone carving tools must have been common, there are surely more plausible explanations. SJ produced only two publications: ‘Nature Rambles in mid-Airedale’ (1952) and ‘Celtic Carved Heads’ (1973), which he wrote after his retirement. Despite a forward from his friend Dr Anne Ross, his last book (when it finally appeared) proved controversial. Critics felt that few of the heads had provenance and any link with the ‘Celts’ was tenuous. I think SJ would have been profoundly saddened by this response but there had been considerable public interest in his collection which appeared on television and was given exhibitions in the 1960s and early 70s. Surprisingly, as late as 1967, he admitted to not having a television although he and his carved heads appeared on BBC TV during the same year in ‘Blue Peter’ and ‘Chronicle’. The illustration is a Bradford head found in a wall at Heaton Woods by Carol & Christine Lister (1965). I don’t have an exact findspot but if either of the discoverers were to read this account I should be very interested to have additional details.

It is hard not to feel a certain nostalgia for SJ’s world. Modern archaeology, with its greater reliance on theory and science, does in the end offer a more fruitful approach but perhaps it has lost some romance in the exchange.

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