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

New Publication: Prehistoric Communities of the River Dee.

Mesolithic Deeside.
A classic evocation of Mesolithic Deeside at work and the sort of evidence they are finding, by Ali Cameron.

Mesolithic Deeside are a voluntary community archaeology group who walk the ploughed fields along the middle reaches of the River Dee around Banchory in order to record the prehistoric archaeology by collecting worked stone from the surface of the field. In the three years from 2017 – 2019 their work resulted in the recovery of over 11,000 lithics representing at least 15 archaeological sites dating from around 12,000 BC to c.2,000 BC. Their work is exciting because it is shedding light on a period of Scottish archaeology about which very little is yet known: the Late Upper Palaeolithic right at the end of the last Ice Age. It also provides an unparalleled glimpse of the extent of human activity along the river.

While others were perfecting their sourdough recipes, or embroidering replicas of the Bayeux Tapestry, I was working with the members of Mesolithic Deeside and various associated archaeologists to produce a publication of the first three years of work of the group. The final words might be mine – but the hard work was undertaken by many others. I had a wealth of reports and field notes, all supplied by the team, from which to hone our document. There were also extensive photographs, maps and drawings – all put together through the talent of others.

Did we succeed in producing an informative but readable account? Download it from the link here and judge for yourself. I think it is a fascinating story, but then I am biased.

The other thing to note here is all the help and expertise we have received from others. From the National Lottery Heritage Fund who provided the funding that got the group going, to Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service who were always there with support and advice, and Historic Environment Scotland who have supported the final publication, as well as many, many other funding bodies along the way. Then there was the fantastic team at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland who edited and published the final report as part of their wonderful Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports series (wonderful not just for the content but also because it is freely available – not a paywall in sight). And so many people along the way. Community archaeology is a brilliant evocation of the variety of skills that can be brought to bear on unravelling the past when people care.

I won’t say that there were not moments when I woke up in the middle of the night and despaired at the size of the task I had taken on. But for me the end result justifies those odd moments of reflection (and I do love writing).

The work of Mesolithic Deeside continues. No matter how much we know about the work of the past, there is always more to learn. If you want to join in, get in touch with them. It is fun – and healthy! And hopefully there will be more volumes like this one: the finds, and sites, since 2019 are already beginning to mount up!

Our addiction to mobility

Transport, in all its many guises, is an essential feature of life today: but for how long?.

I’m interested by the way in which so many of our current anxieties relate to mobility. As I write there are fuel shortages at garage forecourts, supermarket shelves are beginning to look a little depleted, managers are concerned about the flow of goods for Christmas, and problems with the harvesting of foodstuffs have been Continue reading Our addiction to mobility

The significance of a balanced view of the past

Excavation in progress on the Mesolithic site at Kinloch, Rum, in the 1980s. The past has much to contribute to the present, but it should be based on sound science.

The world of archaeology in the United Kingdom has been rocked this year by the announced closure of various university archaeology departments; some well publicised, some sneaking through with nary a comment. I felt a blog coming on Continue reading The significance of a balanced view of the past

Interpretive Whispers

The magnificant cathedral built by Earl Rognvald in the twelfth century takes on additional meaning when you have detail of those who built and used it nearly a thousand years ago.

I’ve been enjoying some time with others, exploring the archaeological sites of Orkney. I always appreciate the variety of monuments here. There are sites relating to all the major periods of prehistory and history and it is a great Continue reading Interpretive Whispers

Hindsight

The more we can shed the trappings of twenty-first century thought processes, the better we can think about the past. Reconstruction of a Mesolithic settlement, by  Jan Dunbar.

Hindsight, we are told, is a wonderful thing. In many ways, it is. But in some ways, it can hinder our view of the world.

Over the past few years, I have been part of a team researching the changing Continue reading Hindsight

Warts and All…

Our interpretations of the past are often very rosy – it rarely even rains! Reconstruction, by artist Jan Dunbar, of an Early Neolithic farmstead in the east of Scotland.

I am old enough to remember the introduction of immersive ‘time travel’ type heritage displays. They often involved using electric ‘cars’ to progress through a reconstruction, or series of reconstructions, of the past. There were even sounds, and appropriate smells, along the way. I, along with many others, loved them. Continue reading Warts and All…

The Joy of Museums

Stone tools collected by local antiquarian, Dr John Grieve, now housed in Aberdeen City Museum. This collection has recently provided some useful new information.

We are all accustomed to the joy of museums. They provide great centres for getting to know a new location or understand the history of a holiday destination. They offer a wonderful way to spend a rainy day, and are brilliant Continue reading The Joy of Museums

World Heritage Sites

The World Heritage symbol is a powerful logo but many sites barely display it. Full marks to Quebec City for celebrating their status with this wonderful sculpture.

On 18th April we celebrated World Heritage Day. I have been lucky enough to visit a great variety of World Heritage Sites around the world, both cultural and natural, and, of course, I live and work in close proximity to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. Continue reading World Heritage Sites

The sadness of coastal erosion

The impressive erosion face at the archaeological site at Pool, Sanday

One of the most common calls I get is about coastal erosion. Orkney, indeed Scotland, is known for its archaeology. It is not surprising, therefore, given the length of the coastline, and high energy content of the surrounding seas, that the remains of ancient sites are to be found, dropping out of the cliffs and sand Continue reading The sadness of coastal erosion

The Bare Necessities

Food; warmth; shelter: these are the universal necessities for human life. But what about other, less tangible needs: social contact; mobility; forward planning? Life on the Pamir Plateau in 1988

I’ve often considered past lifestyles through the filter of the essential requirements of life. Food, heat, shelter – things like this remind me that we are not that different from the people of the past, we just have different ways of fulfilling our needs. Continue reading The Bare Necessities