Why Study Archaeology?

Why spend the time (and money) to study archaeology? It is not a simple picture.

Over the years many people have asked me about the advisability of studying archaeology. Sometimes it is those who look to develop a career in it. Sometimes it is parents who are worried that their child has apparently decided to pursue a career in some fringe subject. Occasionally it is someone who wants to find out more about their long-term interest. Continue reading Why Study Archaeology?

Archaeology: the Pick and Mix Profession

submerged forest Nova Scotia
The submerged landscape is something that touches us all, wherever we work. The traces of this submerged forest in the Minas Basin, Nova Scotia lie below some 12m of water at high tide.

When I studied archaeology, it was a very different topic. We learnt about cultural change through the examination of specific artefact and monument types, often assuming that the pieces that we found were finished and perfect. Continue reading Archaeology: the Pick and Mix Profession

Archaeology for All

Stonehenge
Don’t let’s hide the glories of archaeology behind sloppy headlines.

We have seen some great archaeological headlines over the past few months. A visible presence in the news certainly keeps people interested in archaeology. While that is undoubtedly good for the profession, it does have caveats. Sloppy, or overoptimistic, reporting can backfire, and I am afraid that, to my mind, several recent news reports have been flawed.

I am not alone in this and the study of exaggerated interpretation has, itself, become the subject of some rather interesting archaeological investigation. Gordon Barclay and Kenny Brophy have recently published a paper (free to download) that tracks the progression of an interpretation from possible to certain through the course of various publications. They are concerned with ideas relating to the centrality of Stonehenge in the Neolithic of the British Isles and they follow them from academic to public arena. They go further to consider the ways in which some have added a layer of contemporary political thinking to the archaeological story. It is an excellent paper and their phrase ’interpretive inflation’ should become part of the archaeological lexicon.

It is a cautionary tale for any archaeologist. How many of us have not seen our ideas picked up and developed into something out of all academic recognition? In the ‘good old’ days journalists were usually happy to work hand in hand over several days with their archaeological informants and this provided the opportunity to control the extent to which one’s ideas became exaggerated, or even twisted, when presented to a difference audience. Today, sadly, time is shorter and that sort of personal attention to detail is often lacking. On many occasions, journalists work from prepared press releases rather than direct personal contact.

Of course, we all wish to be recognised for the contribution of our research. But even where we are not, I do not feel that we can abdicate responsibility when archaeological ideas run out of hand.  We need to be very aware of the possibility for interpretive inflation and try to avoid it. It is a dangerous process and one that does no favours for archaeology as a profession.

It is, indeed, a process that can, if we are not careful, occur within our own research papers.

It is natural to wish to tell a good story. And natural to want to see our ideas proved. Sadly, vindication can only come with further research, whether by ourselves or at the hands of others.  While it is tempting to progress from ‘possibly’ in our results section to ‘certainly’ in the conclusions, it is not honest.

One course of action we can take to control this is to be careful of our wording and not to let our enthusiasm run away with us when writing up our research. Another step is to be more careful when we word press releases and work with the media. To present everything through hyperbole is lazy and needless. The world may have drifted into a place where things have to be the biggest, best, or earliest, but it has not always been so. One of the strengths of archaeology is the way in which it highlights the glorious detail of the everyday. There is value in the ordinary and it is a story that we, as archaeologists, can tell. History, ironically, is often hidebound by the constraints of those whose voices were significant enough to survive. Archaeology may not have the voices, but the record of material culture and alteration to the world that we pick up is broader and more representative.

That is not to say that archaeology provides an unbiased record. Of course, there is still considerable bias. Often, but not always, it is the material culture of the important or significant that will survive down the millennia. Nevertheless, as archaeologists we can start to untangle the web of hierarchy and it is part of our job to emphasise the value of the ordinary and the under-represented. How boring the human record would be if told only through the point of view of one facet of society. We have privileged access to the past diversity of society, and we should be careful to make sure that we represent it.

Barclay and Brophy continue to discuss the apparent use of archaeological interpretation to bolster contemporary politics, in this case the Brexit debate. The mixing of archaeology and politics is hardly new, and, for me, should really be the topic of a separate blog. I’ve written on it elsewhere, in a volume to be published next year. In brief, though it is a difficult field and one that can, if mishandled, provide a toxic legacy, I don’t think we can, or should, avoid it. We cannot censor those aspects of present society wherein archaeology is a part. If it has a role to play, then it plays that role everywhere. But we do need to be careful, and we need to aim for balance. We cannot curtail or stifle other people’s views, but we can make sure that good base-line data is always available and we can work to bring alternative interpretations to the fore.

This leads back to my original point. If we limit the content of archaeology in the media to hyperbole, we limit the widespread understanding of the value of archaeology. We limit information about the past and, ultimately, we limit the role that we, as archaeologists play. It is a dangerous path to take.

I have had first-hand experience of this.  ‘Britain’s Lost Atlantis’ was coined as a headline by David Keys to cover the first archaeological indications of the area we now know as Doggerland, when a small flint scraper was found on the bed of the North Sea in the late 1980s. It was an eye-catching headline. Since then it has been used numerous times; an internet search yields a surprising diversity of newspaper reports that make use of it, the most recent published in June 2019, as well as several television and radio programmes. Of course, the original research is long since superseded by more recent finds and the application of more modern techniques. That is how it should be after all this time. The original headline is, to my mind, long superseded also, it hardly suggests anything new. There is much to tell, but I’d like to see a new headline. And it is not Atlantis!

Rather than build unrealistic expectations, or even dice with the onset of public boredom, how much better to focus on the detail. What is new? What new techniques have been deployed? Where? What can they tell us that previous work was lacking? With just a little bit of imagination, and not much effort, we could build a picture of the excitement of being an archaeologist, the way in which we use data to build an interpretation, and the ongoing contribution of continued investigation. That way we set up the scene not just for our results, but also for improved understanding of the work and significance of archaeology. That can only stand us in good stead when issues of funding, or recruitment, come to the fore.

The perils of interpretive inflation are salutary for any archaeologist. Impact may be king – but there is only a limited number of times that we can be the first to see wondrous things or discover the biggest and the best. Every time I read an account that highlights the unusual nature of a discovery, I feel a little bit like Tinkerbell when she explains that whenever someone doubts the existence of fairies then a fairy dies. How long before our use of hyperbole starts to kill a little bit of some of the ordinary life of the past.

We don’t want that.

 

 

 

Significant Sites?

Fieldwalking groups such as Mesolithic Deeside, here photographed by Ali Cameron, have a real contribution to make with regard to picking up the tiniest signs of life in the past.

I’ve been thinking about the significance of archaeological sites in connection with a project I’m working on just now. I’m concerned in particular with lithic scatter sites: fields, or other areas, where a spread of worked stone is visible on the surface of the ground.

Some lithic scatter sites have many thousands of pieces of worked stone (usually, but not always, flint), but others may have only a few hundred, or even a handful. Some sites cover a wide area, some are smaller, some more concentrated. By classifying the types of worked stone found it is possible to get an idea of the chronological periods represented. The fashion for some things was, thankfully, different in the Mesolithic to the Neolithic and so on. Arrowheads are particularly vulnerable to fashion. The range of pieces can also provide a rough idea of activity: whether there is debris from the manufacture of tools for example, or perhaps mainly points, blades or scrapers left from the completion of some tasks. It is very rough and really, in order to understand any site better, some sort of more invasive archaeology is necessary to investigate the preservation of in situ features and other material. But often the collection and classification of a surface assemblage is the best way to obtain a basic understanding of the archaeology.

What bothers me, however, is how to assess the significance of these places? In the past we have tended to judge them by size and, where present, date. Big sites, with lots of material, would be regarded as more significant than small sites with only a few pieces. Sites with pieces that relate to earlier or less well-known periods also tend to be regarded as significant. But this is all very crude.

For starters, it is patently, only a register of the significance of a site in the present day. We are assessing the significance to modern archaeologists. Is it not, in fact, an unreliable evaluation to base the significance of a site in prehistory on the amount of debris that people left behind? By that measure the most significant places in post-war Britain would be old landfill sites. Weird (or maybe not).

Size may come into it, but it is a complex equation. Occupation sites generally contain a diversity of evidence: traces of shelters, hearths, storage, and waste. Our homes are certainly significant. But are they the most significant places in our lives? What about the wooded hillock a mile away where we know we can always be sure of bagging some game for the pot? What about the crystal-clear waterfall that leads to the burn running past our fields? It ensures life-giving fresh water throughout the year. What about the farm where we grew up, where our sister still lives with her family – we have never returned but it is always in our hearts. How about the tombs of the ancestors? The great oak where everyone congregates when we need to gather? You get my gist. One thing about our 2020 lockdown – it has changed the way we view the places on which we rely. Significance is not stable.

Some archaeologists are lucky. They have records, or even informants, to discuss the way in which the landscape worked for other communities. Opportunities like this open up new worlds, new interpretations. But they don’t exist for those of us concerned with the early Prehistory of Europe. The life of an archaeologist is devoted to interpreting other communities, but, of necessity, our first-hand experience is always limited to ourselves.

It occurs to me that we are wrong to dismiss the teeny-weeny lithic scatters as insignificant. We cannot ever know. While archaeologists focus on definable sites, the people of the past did not operate in discrete boxes; their behaviour took place across the landscape. There is, thus, a geographic gradation of detritus relating to any activity or life. Centres, known as sites, are likely to contain the highest density of detritus (in this case lithic assemblages), but it is unlikely to stop completely between centres. In order to understand human behaviour, therefore, it is important to record and investigate the less prolific areas of lithic material as well as the higher density spreads. This has long been an issue for archaeologists, and it is, of course, complicated by the geomorphological and other taphonomic processes that also impact on archaeological survival. Foley considered it, very eloquently, in 1978. Archaeology focusses on clearly defined sites with large numbers of finds, but those with fewer finds are likely to be just as interesting (and significant) in terms of ancient human behaviour. How to investigate and interpret the less clearly defined site, where a handful of lithics may be the only indication of prehistoric activity, is more of a problem, but we can, at least, record them and make a start.

Higher density sites may be significant in terms of archaeological resource and past human behaviour, but it is perhaps through examination of lower density sites that archaeological fieldwalking really comes into its own. In this way it offers a real contribution towards interpretation of the behaviour of the prehistoric communities. These are the places through which people passed: the routeways, overnight stops, hunting blinds, kill-site butchery areas, all the little everyday places that completed the web of human activity.

Without the small, and apparently insignificant, as well as the large, our archaeologies will always be incomplete.

Remote Archaeology

Archaeology is not only about the joys of digging outside, in the rain! There is a lot more to it. Excavation in progress on the Mesolithic site at Kinloch, Rum, in the 1980s.

My introduction to archaeology was very much through the joy of being out of doors. Exploration, hard work – often in bad weather, fellowship and friendship. Some of the people I met on digs in the 1970s are still friends today. It was Continue reading Remote Archaeology

Using your voice

The Barberellas in concert at the Stones of Stenness, Orkney. How did the original users of the monument sound?

A few months ago I  spent a week working on voice and communication with Kristin Linklater. It was a fascinating experience that got me thinking about all sorts of things. I never set out to be an academic (if, indeed, I am one). I was just Continue reading Using your voice

Lockdown Archaeology

What will the archaeologists of the future make of our present situation in lockdown? Will they even be able to see it? Excavation in progress on the Mesolithic site at Kinloch, Rum, in the 1980s.

I’ve been wondering about the archaeological footprint of the lockdown.

Right now, it impacts on everyone across the United Kingdom. No one is untouched by it. It is a big event globally. But will it be visible to archaeologists in a few centuries time – what about millennia? I’ve always been fascinated with Continue reading Lockdown Archaeology

Lost voices

The people of the past remain elusive no matter how much research we undertake. Nevertheless, some are brave, or foolhardy, enough to try to interpret past lives. It is important work (image shows Alex Leonard’s artwork for the cover of a nice teaching resource by Forestry and Land Scotland).

Reading the accounts of some excavations in Australia recently has made me rather melancholy. We have amassed a tremendous volume of data and investigation regarding the Mesolithic communities of Scotland. But something Continue reading Lost voices

Pandemic Phenomenology

Fishing in Lapland
Archaeology is about people in the past and their lived experience. But really, are any of us equipped to pontificate on that?

There is an archaeological method known as phenomenology. It is sometimes treated as a bit of a joke – being both difficult to spell and to pronounce, and consisting, as it does, of a consideration of the experiential aspect of monuments and landscapes. It has been critiqued (and I paraphrase), as the discipline of feeling the sand between your toes or the sun on your back. It is a hard technique to quantify, and current trends in archaeological investigation tend to prioritise quantification.

The coronavirus outbreak has got me thinking about phenomenology.

I’m wondering if it has not, just a little bit, exposed the arrogance of western societies in the twenty-first century. Why should we be immune to the public health scares that our ancestors endured? When you get cancer (and I have done that road trip), you are often told to embrace the attitude of ‘why should I be spared’. It is, apparently, healthier than getting angry over the fact that you have fallen foul of that particular condition. Actually, I never really found that it worked for me. But I am finding it useful, and interesting, to consider the ways in which previous communities struggled in the way that we are now struggling. Why should we be spared?

My ancestors, and yours, lived through the global outbreak of influenza just after the First World War. Down the centuries (and millennia before that) they had to deal with plague, smallpox, typhoid, and cholera. Amongst other things. They lived in a world where you could not take longevity for granted. They, collectively even if not individually, survived. Why should we be any different? I draw strength from their strength. Yet I think, perhaps, that we may have grown a little complacent.

The assumption of longevity that most of us enjoy today is a very modern luxury. It relies on cultural, social, geographical and financial factors. But few people stop to consider that. To start with, it assumes that we will always have enough to eat. There are still far too many around the world for whom that is not something to take for granted. It assumes that we will always have access to sophisticated healthcare. That is not a given either. It assumes that we live in a stable and peaceful political system. And it assumes that we will have continued financial security. Less than half of the world’s population fall into the category where these issues can all be taken for granted. And until very recently the difference between surviving and not-surviving was minute, even for our own predecessors.

Even for those of us who do take it for granted, the boundary between safety and crisis is in reality very thin. In actual fact it is transgressed every day. We choose to ignore that.

The link between the austerity measures practised in the UK and a rising death rate is easy to track. It has not stopped us practising austerity. Presumably because those who are most affected have little voice.

The descent into chaos of countries like Syria, Yemen, and various African States, caused by war and famine is on our news every night. We read how many modern asylum seekers and refugees are middle class professionals: doctors; nurses; teachers; engineers; and the like. People who were once defined by their profession and wish that were the case once more.

We are all, no matter how safe we feel, but a hair’s breadth away from slipping down the cracks in the world.

The coronavirus pandemic has shifted the boundaries to reveal just how close to the netherworld of chaos are all of us. I’m hoping that perhaps we will learn not to take things for granted, and even to be more supportive of those who, though no cause of their own, live life on the wrong side of the divide. Most of us in the west are still privileged enough to be able to hope (if not rely) that, in this instance, modern medical science will come to our aid.

But really, do we deserve to be any different from our grandparents? Or their grandparents?

Meanwhile, for the archaeologist, now is the time to do some serious phenomenology. None of that wandering around some scenic ancient monument in the sunshine before you head off to the nearest gastropub for a slap-up meal and a craft beer or two. Once this is over, try heading for your nearest stone circle or burial mound in the wind and rain once your toilet paper and food have run out and you are terrified that greeting your nearest and dearest will transmit a potentially fatal virus. Drop your rose-tinted spectacles and get to grips with the dark as well as the light side of the past.

Archaeology as Muse

I love a good book, and I love writing, but I could not write fiction! Thanks to Pete Stokes for this photo.

Archaeology is important to me. I just love it when it permeates everyday culture. It is a justification in my mind of its significance as an artefact, itself contributing to the way we live now. Continue reading Archaeology as Muse

Ancestral Piles

The remains at Skara Brae in Orkney evidence generations of Neolithic occupants. Was this family representation significant to Neolithic society? One author thinks so in his new book.

We have a very short-term relationship with material culture these days. Nothing lasts for long and we are ever keen to seek a new version, the most up to date model. It is true with regard to both our largest and our smallest possessions. The Continue reading Ancestral Piles