The Passage of Time in Neolithic Orkney

Excavations taking place at Ness of Brodgar. Can we really compare the development of this site with that of other Neolithic archaeology around Orkney?

Many years ago (more than I care to remember) I used to meet with a group of archaeological colleagues for a relaxing drink on a Friday night in Edinburgh. Most of us were involved, at one time or another, in working on the Neolithic archaeology of Orkney. Even then Orkney was regarded as something special. Being archaeologists we rarely left our work totally behind but rather used the time to discuss some of the most pressing dilemmas in our archaeological interpretations. I remember animated debates as to the meaning of the two very different pottery styles to be found in Neolithic Orkney. Did they, as some people thought, overlap, or had one supplanted the other. Radiocarbon dating had not long been employed and it was still something of a blunt tool – in many ways it did not lend much to our discussion. Another favourite topic was the meaning of the different styles of tombs and houses to be found in Orkney. It all seemed very bipartite. Were we simply observing the transformations in society that lead to changes in material culture? But was it a simple linear, evolutionary change? Or were there more nefarious elements at play. In short, did the advent of new styles of tomb and house (and other material culture) mean the advent of new people with new ways, did it signal some sort of social unrest or change, or was it just a matter of time?

You will notice that the uncertainties of dating at the time were such that we were able to assume that everything had changed at much the same time.

Now, I read with interest a new paper, by Alex Bayliss and colleagues, recently published in Antiquity. Alex is one of the wizards of radiocarbon dating. Using a statistical technique, known as Bayesian analysis, she is able to produce much tighter estimates of age from calibrated radiocarbon dates in conjunction with existing understanding of the archaeological record. Together with her colleagues they have been looking at the dates available for the sites of Neolithic Orkney, and taking many new dates as well, in order to provide a detailed chronology for Neolithic Orkney and consider what it may mean.

It is an interesting, thought provoking paper that pulls together a huge amount of information. It has received much attention since it was published. There is a lot of useful information relating to issues like the length of use of specific sites, and the ways in which they may relate to one another. But I am left questioning some of their conclusions, and somehow I ended up feeling a little disappointed. One of the problems with publishing in Antiquity is that you have to keep your papers short, and, in this case, it meant that the evidence needed to back up their statements was often lacking.

There is useful information relating to the antiquity of timber houses in Orkney together with the stone buildings that became more common. There is information relating to the dating of different types of tomb, and to the pottery types. The general conclusion seems to be that some social differentiation and the concurrence of new ideas took place fairly early on in Neolithic Orkney (the overlapping of the different styles in tombs and pottery for example), but that around 2800 BC something happened that led to a geographical shift in settlements and the development of larger houses and more elaborate pottery. The authors note that events in the Neolithic heartland of Stenness-Brodgar were, however, very different.

One of my problems relates to this comparison of the sites in the Stenness-Brodgar area with those elsewhere in Orkney. Stenness-Brodgar is a very different place with a very different type of site. Ness of Brodgar is discussed as a ‘place of human dwelling’. Now there is not much yet published about Ness, but all the material that one can find leads one to believe that it is not a common or garden settlement. Surely, it is not, therefore, surprising to find that events there were different to those elsewhere. The authors are not, as I understand it, comparing like with like.

There is also a general assumption that the archaeology of Orkney is such that the known sites provide a representative sample of what went on in the past. I find this very doubtful. Not only does general research suggest that this is not so, the known sites represent only the places where we have looked for (or found), sites. But also, the very existence of sites like Ness of Brodgar, totally unknown until some ten years ago, tells us that we don’t know everything about Neolithic Orkney.

The authors conclude by suggesting that the variety of style and material culture in the earlier centuries of Neolithic Orkney may represent a competitive society in which communities sought to outdo each other in the monuments and houses that they built and the goods that they used. In this, the advent of elaborate flat-bottomed Grooved Ware pottery and different types of tomb might be seen as a way for one community to differentiate itself from others. Continual elaboration of house form and material culture is used to back this up and the paper talks of political tension and social concerns. Finally, the arrival of the Orkney vole is brought into play as a proxy for the introduction of new ideas and possibly even people directly from Europe in the later fourth millennium cal BC.

As I say it is an interesting paper. But I am left wondering whether, in nearly 40 years, we have really advanced at all in our archaeological deliberations. The arguments of the paper sound so much like those I used to hear in the pub. The dates are more tightly constrained, we have more sites, more variation in our sites, and, perhaps, more sophistication in our ideas. But I don’t really feel that I have learnt anything new. The dates presented confirm the old conundrums, they don’t explain them. For that we are left with unsupported speculation, just as we always have been. As you know, I don’t believe in an ‘archaeological truth’, and I guess we all love speculation, but we need to be careful not to suggest that it is founded in scientific fact.

The northern reaches of Doggerland

Shetland
The island mass of Shetland, stretching out  south from Unst, is just the tip of the iceberg of the land that may have been experienced by early hunters.

If you travel to Shetland today you will find a rather beautiful island chain that essentially comprises a series of steep hills. The topography is abrupt and dramatic; the landscape is gentler towards the coast, but in most places agricultural land is concentrated into small pockets. Numerous islands, of varying size, surround the main landmass.

Curiously, the islands have no indigenous land mammals. The evidence suggests that all, including otters and ponies, have been introduced by the earlier communities of Shetland. The early islanders were canny folk, well able to adapt their lifestyle and farming methods to make the most of the climate and conditions out on this north-western edge of the Atlantic landmass.

The history of the very specific conditions in Shetland brings to mind some pressing questions. If we go back far enough, to the millennia immediately after the Last Glacial Maximum, which ended in the northern hemisphere around 19,000 years ago, then a combination of lower relative sea-levels and land adjustment due to the weight of the ice mean that a great expanse of dry land connected Britain to the Continent. We call this land Doggerland and it is currently the subject of some serious research including work to investigate the topography, flora and fauna of the landscape.

Large quantities of animal bone have been recovered from Doggerland, from a variety of sources including fishing trawls and aggregate extraction. Much of this is Pleistocene, ie dating to before the present era, and it comprises the remains of mammoths, woolly rhinos, bear, lions, hippos, bison and so on. There are also elk and reindeer. And, of course, though they are rare, the remains of people have also been found.

Several of these species of animal were prey species that also occur on excavated archaeological sites in the countries that surround Doggerland, and there is a general assumption that the human inhabitants of Doggerland will have hunted them. It is, in fact, impossible to understand the early settlement of those bordering countries without taking in to account the hazy, but very real, idea that the hunter-gatherer communities who occupied them extended their ranges across lands that have since disappeared beneath the waves.

Indeed, when considering the recent re-discovery of tanged points in Orkney, the general impression is that they provide evidence of the fleeting presence of hunter-gatherer groups from Doggerland who, some 12,000 – 13,000 years ago, were keen, for whatever reason, to explore the north-west fringes of the landmass.

Which brings me back to Shetland. If it was possible for the Late Upper Palaeolithic hunters to access Orkney from Doggerland (whether across a stretch of open water or not), was it also possible for them to access Shetland? When, exactly, did Shetland become islands? If it was possible to get to Shetland overland, then it was also possible that Shetland was home to the animal species that flourished in Doggerland. Of course, you may say – there is no evidence for large mammals in early Shetland, but, I would reply – absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence. There has been little research in deposits of the right age in Shetland so it may be that the bone has just not been found. I’m not sure that we even know where to look. The dramatically lower sea-levels of the period mean that the Shetland we experience today is only part of the resource, only the tops of the Shetlandic mountains that the explorers of Doggerland would have known. It may well be that the best pockets of evidence lie underwater.

This is not just some fanciful questioning. If we really want to understand the nature of Shetland and its earliest population, then we need to understand its relationship with Doggerland. Although the arrival of the early farmers by boat and the animals they brought with them in fairly recent times, is well attested, it is possible, even probable, that there was an earlier Shetland, a place where herds of reindeer, or even mammoth, occasionally grazed and where, when they did, there were small groups of Palaeolithic hunters ready to make the most of the bounty of the land.

Tourist Pressures

Ring of Brodgar
The wild landscape of the Ring of Brodgar

Attention has been drawn recently to the lack of toilet facilities at the Ring of Brodgar. It is a difficult problem and encapsulates precisely the dilemma of managing a World Heritage Site in the twenty-first century. As guardians of The Heart of Neolithic Orkney we want people to visit the sites and love them in the way that we, who live in Orkney, love them. Indeed, helped by some canny marketing and promotion, people now come from around the world to visit Orkney and many of those who come are attracted by the lure of our archaeology. As an archaeologist, I’m heartened by that; I never imagined when I embarked on my career over forty years ago, that archaeology might become quite so popular.

It is not an undiluted pleasure, however. With increased visitor footfall, we see all sorts of problems arising. Sadly, litter can be an issue, and there are even people who still see fit to leave graffiti. Over the last couple of years, we have watched an intensive programme of works by Historic Environment Scotland to improve drainage at the site and get rid of conditions that could, at times, verge on ankle-deep mud – not good for either the welfare of the site nor for visitor safety. Arriving at the site requires vehicular access, and a car park was built some years ago. This year there has been increasing pressure on the narrow, single-track, road leading to the car park with both vehicles and pedestrians jostling for position in a way that can be, at times, quite scary.

Nevertheless, in general, it works, and many people appreciate the relatively ‘wild’ atmosphere of the site in contrast to more managed attractions like Stonehenge. But, people continue to arrive in increasing numbers.

Which brings me to the toilets. Some correspondents write as if this were a simple matter: install toilets. Portaloos or a septic tank perhaps, given the distance from mains drainage. There is certainly room at the side of the car park. But it is not as easy as that. There are two problems: overground and underground. Overground, considerable care is taken (and the planning process requires), that the setting of the World Heritage Site is not compromised by modern development. It is not an insurmountable issue, one could, for example, widen the bank around the car park on the lochside and build in an earthfast suite of cubicles. But it would cost money. Underground the issue may be more difficult because, as you will be aware, archaeological sites are like icebergs, anything that survives is likely to lie below the visible bits. Though the car park is set away from the Ring itself, the whole isthmus, at least from Maeshowe to Bookan, was made use of in the Neolithic and the remains of sites dot the landscape. As the excavations at Ness of Brodgar show, the isthmus can still surprise us. So, any work has to be undertaken with requisite archaeological input and that is slow and expensive. There was, of course, excavation in advance of the construction of the car park, but it is likely that the construction of toilets would require more work.

Once, when visiting a rock art site in a remote part of Sweden, I came across a cardboard toilet. You can buy them from a well-known online retailer. But they require frequent emptying and they would still need a superstructure.

I’m not sure what the answer is. Signage, to make people aware that there are no toilet facilities due to the fragile nature of the site and explaining exactly how to get to the public toilets in Dounby and Stenness (and how long it will take)? Increased awareness and a discrete information cue from tour guides and bus drivers? I visit Brodgar with coach parties from time to time, and I do make sure that I warn people in advance of the lack of toilets at both stone circles. Perhaps we should be thinking of enlarging the facilities in the nearby villages: a coach with forty guests can take a while at the public convenience in Stenness. One thing I do know is that I’m keen to keep access to our World Heritage Sites as open and inviting as possible. As you get older and stiffer, perhaps more infirm, you don’t lose your interest in heritage. But it is a difficult one. The Ring of Brodgar was undoubtedly built for communal visits and activities, but, of course, visitor numbers were different, people were (probably) not restricted to one narrow path of access, and the modern requirement for ‘facilities’, was solved in other ways.

It is a conundrum, some of our best sites are just too fragile and remote to cope with the demands of the twenty-first century. There has been a lot of debate recently about the benefits, and otherwise, of the tourist numbers that Orkney now attracts. We are told by OIC that the introduction of cheaper ferry fares is likely to bring tourists ‘in even greater numbers’ and that this is something they wish to encourage. We can’t put a halt to the tourism bandwagon, and I’m not sure we  want to; many of us benefit from the tourist economy, and most of us enjoy being tourists ourselves.

Perhaps the time has come to take control and plan for the future. What sort of visitor numbers do we, as a community, want? What attractions do we want to promote? How will people get there? What do we want them to ‘take away’? How do we want to manage it? Should there be days every week that are managed to be less congested? To date, tourism here has grown and developed in a very ad hoc fashion, but I think we want to control it, rather than let it control us.

New publication

A new book summarizes the Quaternary environments of the submerged landscapes of the European continental shelf. It is a detailed overview that extends from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and includes some general chapters on sea-level and climate as well as the preservation conditions that impact on the sites that once lay on these hidden landscapes. Needless to say it is an expensive and academic tome, but invaluable for those working in the field, or those seeking to improve management and investigation. It is part of a series of books produced as output for the Splashcos project, the other two being Under the Sea: archaeology and palaeolandscapes of the continental shelf, and Coastline changes of the Baltic Sea from south to east, both published by Springer. Together they make a formidable addition to the growing collection of material on submerged landscapes. I’ve co-authored a chapter in the first volume.  I’m now frantically reading it all in an attempt to keep my forthcoming text book on sea-level change and submerged landscapes for archaeologists up to date!

Searching for the Scottish Late Upper Palaeolithic

Intrigued by the emerging evidence for Late Upper Palaeolithic activity in Scotland, Torben Bjarke Ballin and I have put together a short paper which was published earlier this week in the Journal of Lithic Studies. We are particularly interested in the potential of existing lithic collections to yield finds that went unrecognised in the past. There are several reasons for this. Often, it was just not possible to examine large field collections in the detail necessary. But also, current paradigms do exert a very real bias on the way that we think, with the result that identifications can be missed. Many years ago I worked on a flint assemblage from Lunanhead, Angus. It looked vaguely Late Upper Palaeolithic, but because I knew there was no evidence for Palaeolithic in Scotland, I worked hard to make it fit into Early Neolithic paradigms. To have published it as Palaeolithic would have required a very strong argument because it went against the accepted wisdom of the time, and I was just not courageous enough. Torben has recently been re-examining that assemblage and, I am pleased to say, that he feels able to confirm my initial hunch, that it might be early. I’m hoping that he will have time to publish a new version of the flint assemblage in due course.

Meantime, you have to make do with our new paper, which is available to download here.

The Invisibility of Women

cwj knapping
Women flintknappers – breaking the gender barriers of prehistory? Or just a modern misconception – maybe the gender barrier was never there? Maybe it varied from place to place? Can we tell?

A recent paper in The Conversation, a news platform based on academic writing and research, asks ‘Where were all the women in the Stone Age?’.

It is a good question and the author is to be credited for posing it. Unfortunately, the ensuing text is full of contradiction and occasional bias. Nevertheless, it is a topic that should, perhaps, be required thinking for all of us who work in prehistory at least once a year. To approach it, we need to go back to the basics.

Continue reading The Invisibility of Women

The Invention of Tradition

Galley burning
Up Helly Aa is an impressive spectacle that lifts onlookers far away from a cold, wet northern winter. The culmination of the ceremonies takes place as the galley starts to burn.

I woke to a panel discussion on Radio Scotland the other day regarding the current popularity of archaeology. It was nice to hear them praise the recent Orkney television series, but what really interested me was the link they made between living in uncertain times and the need to reinforce ideas of heritage.

At the end of January I travelled to Shetland to watch the annual Up Helly Aa fire festival. It was an amazing experience, and quite apart from letting my hair down, it got me thinking. Continue reading The Invention of Tradition

Thoughts on Ness of Brodgar

My favourite spot at Ness of Brodgar, the paving outside structures one and eleven and the passage way running between the two.
My favourite spot at Ness of Brodgar, the paving outside structures one and eleven and the passageway running between the two.

I’m often asked about the site at Ness of Brodgar. It is an amazing place, and a fascinating excavation to visit. But I have to say that I am quite glad not to be a part of the project team. Ness is clearly very, very complex and exploring the history of a site like that is not an easy task. I can remember visiting Lionel Masters when he was excavating the long cairn at Grey Cairns of Camster in Caithness and feeling quite overwhelmed by all the stone work there. I have the same feeling at Ness of Brodgar. I don’t envy Nick Card and his colleagues the work that lies ahead as they follow and unravel the threads of human activity that have gone to make up the site.

It is a rare and exciting opportunity, however, to see a side of Neolithic life that we have only just begun to explore in Scotland: we have some detail of the houses and communities in which people lived; we have information on the great chambered tombs they built to house at least some of their dead and where we think people may have gathered as part of the cementing of local identities; we even have the great stone circles and henge sites where a wider expression of society is likely to have taken place. Ness shows us that there was more to life than that. Whatever it was, and we have yet to see the interpretations founded on painstaking analysis that will no doubt arise in years to come, it was clearly an important part of life in Neolithic Orkney. Continue reading Thoughts on Ness of Brodgar

The State that Looks After Its Past

Ring of Brodgar

The stone circle at the Ring of Brodgar is a popular place for locals and tourists alike; entry is free.

My local newspaper, the Orcadian, recently ran an article about possible plans for Historic Environment Scotland (HES) to hand over the operation of the 33 HES sites in Orkney (including the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae) to the care of local Council as a result of funding problems. This was, of course, strenuously denied by HES, though they did say:

We are exploring options for managing site access at Maeshowe, as visitors currently have to cross a busy main road to get to the site and the safety of our visitors and staff is paramount.

Our board recently considered a proposal, and wish to discuss the project further with Orkney Islands Council when our new chief executive arrives in September.

We are reviewing short-term options at present… Any short-term impact on access to the site will not have any effect on jobs in Orkney or anywhere else in Historic Environment Scotland’. (HES Spokesperson, quoted in The Orcadian, 11.08.16, page 1).

This little story, albeit hidden within the pages of a very local newspaper, rings alarm bells with me.

Continue reading The State that Looks After Its Past

The world of Doggerland

High Seas Orkney
The sea can unite as well as divide… It can obscure and reveal. It conditions the way we look at things. What lies out there – beyond our coasts?

I’m watching events relating to Britain’s position in Europe with a kind of horrible fascination. Chronologically, my work concerns the period when the land that would become the UK was merely a mountainous, largely ice-girt, peninsula on the north west of the continent that we call ‘Europe’. I realise that this has biased my point of view. Continue reading The world of Doggerland

Virtual Worlds

Official Screenshot for Far Cry Primal showing the main character in the landscape
Official Screenshot for Far Cry Primal showing the main character in the landscape setting.

My guilty secret is that I’ve been playing on my son’s Playstation Four. Those in the know will guess that the motivation for this is the release of Far Cry Primal. Far Cry Primal is, to quote the blurb an ‘open-world sandbox set in the Stone Age era’. It is a video game where the violence relates to three competing ‘stone age’ tribes and their environment. It is fascinating. Continue reading Virtual Worlds

Significant Places

Blick Mead
The main spring at Blick Mead has a very special atmosphere, though it lies in modern woodland.

Much has been written of the way in which natural places are significant to hunter gatherers and we assume that this was the case for those who lived in the British Isles in the Mesolithic. Not for them the dominance of the green earthen bank, the white quartz (or chalk) façade, the grey stone megalith. Instead we imagine that they related to locations that were more a part of the natural world. Locations where familiar things (water, trees, rocks), took on unfamiliar form.

The problem with this is that it can be hard to prove. In many cases, the very nature of the place will have been unlikely to survive the passage of the millennia since they were in use. Where they have survived, it goes against the archaeological grain to investigate a potential site that may, to all intents and purposes, ‘not be there’.  There are, however, a few locations that seem to tick the box and I know of two that are under investigation. I have been lucky enough to visit both.

High in the Cairngorms, at the point where the path climbs up into the exposed pass that we now call the Lairig Ghru, a waterfall, known as the Chest of Dee, cuts across an exposure of rock to fall to a series of dark pools. From here the River Dee makes its way eastwards out of the mountains and through fertile woodlands to the sea at Aberdeen. Footpath maintenance below the waterfall in 2005 revealed a handful of flint tools among which narrow blade microliths were recognised.  Since then excavation by students from the Universities of Aberdeen and Dublin (under the direction of Gordon Noble and Graeme Warren), has discovered plentiful evidence of Mesolithic activity.

At the opposite end of the topographical spectrum, at the southern edge of the Wiltshire Downs, the River Avon connects to a natural pool in the chalk, known as Blick Mead. Today, the pool lies within relatively recently planted woodland, but visitors are stuck by the atmosphere. It is a weird, yet peaceful place. The water is apparently still, yet it moves in an endless series of animated circles. This is not the action of fish, it is the result of bubbles as warm spring water comes to the surface. Excavation by students from the University of Buckingham and local volunteers (under the direction of David Jacques) has yielded abundant Mesolithic stone tools and other evidence.

In both cases these sites are linked in to a wider landscape. Mesolithic evidence extends to other sites in the close vicinity. Curiously, both have associations with great Mesolithic pit features: Blick Mead lies just over 2.5km from Stonehenge where a series of pits close to the henge site are interpreted by English Heritage as totem pole-like posts erected between 8500 and 7000 BC. Slightly further from the site at Chest of Dee, but along the same river, is the site at Crathes, where a line of carefully curated pits has been dated to around 8200 BC. Though these pits lie some 75km from the waterfall site, half way between the two is the narrow Pass of Ballater, where mineral deposits shine in lurid colours high in the rocks. Traces of these minerals were linked to the materials within the pits.

Our understanding of the way in which our Mesolithic forebears saw the world and their place in it will always be hazy. But there is increasing diversity in the sites that we recognise and this is exciting. Not only do we need to refine the ways in which we study the traces they left behind. We also need to distance ourselves from our twenty-first century appreciation of the world around us. At sites like these, we can start to enter a different state of awareness.

You can read more about these sites here:

Jacques, D. and Phillips, T. 2014. Mesolithic Settlement near Stonehenge: excavations at Blick Mead. Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural history Magazine, 107, 7-27.

Stonehenge Mesolithic Posts

Chest of Dee – we have submitted a paper to Antiquity, but in the meantime here is a video of the work on the site.

Crathes Mesolithic Pits

 

Long Sight

Kirkwall - distance shot.
Zoom lenses allow us to see from afar – but perhaps the hunter-gatherer would see more in a distant landscape than we imagine.

Thinking about photographs has prompted me to think about sight. I prefer to take landscape views rather than close up shots. And I think I tend to be better at noticing the grand scale of things rather than what is by my feet. I have certainly felt that my long distance sight has improved since moving out of the town. My horizon now extends for a good 25 miles on a clear day, rather than just across the street. It has made me notice more.

I wonder whether living in towns has encouraged us to develop a different type of vision? So much that we now do is small scale, even driving a car rarely requires us to look far ahead. And, of course, we focus on screens – when I was a child you were told not to sit too close to the television; today we think nothing of working a foot or so away from our computer screens. Our lives require good, close sight.

Those who came across hunter-gatherer groups in the nineteenth century often commented on the amazing long sight of their contacts. It was something noted by Lucas Bridges in his wonderful account of life in Tierra del Fuego at the end of the nineteenth century: The Uttermost Part of the Earth, but he was not alone; I have come across it elsewhere. It is usually described as part of the skills of the hunter, but of course it also serves other purposes: the ability to forsee danger; or the recognition of way markers along an obscure (to us) routeway.

In 2009 a study concluded that men have better distance vision due to their hunter-gatherer past, whereas women are more adept at observing close range, reflecting the skills required of the gatherer (Stancey, H. & Turner, M. 2010). It is not just a matter of vision; it is also to do with how your brain processes space.

I can’t comment on the study, but it is a reminder just how much we have changed, or not, since our hunter-gatherer past. Our circumstances do help to shape the senses we need and the way we are. Over time, I guess, the effect is cumulative. I doubt that many of us (outside the profession of deer stalking) retain the vision to spot an animal at a distance that would allow us to approach it downwind and get close enough to shoot it with bow and arrow. Or even, perhaps, the vision to spot possible prey at closer range. I remember a trip out with a rabbit hunter once and he saw the bunnies long before I had noticed them.

Meanwhile, I do enjoy the way my eyes have (re)adjusted to distance since moving north. Curiously, I find it much more restful to contemplate the broad sweep of landscape rather than the detail. I’d like to think that I’m tuning in to my hunter-gatherer ancestors, but I suspect it is something more prosaic.

The Challenge of Stonehenge

Stonehenge in low winter light, December 2004
Stonehenge never loses its ability to inspire wonder and mystery. I suspect this is something we have in common with our ancestors who built it.

Was anyone else challenged by watching BBC Four romp through the interpretation of Stonehenge through the ages for Timewatch last night? It wasn’t the content – I loved that, there was some great archive footage and it was very interesting to summarize how we have looked at Stonehenge over the last seventy years. What got me was the way in which Stonehenge emerged as a powerful symbol of patriarchy.

I’m not talking prehistory here (well, maybe just a little bit). I’m talking archaeology. Thank goodness the programme was presented by Alice Roberts (I wonder if that was a deliberate decision). Other than that, apart from the work done by Jacqueline McKinley, all of those interviewed or shown in the old footage were men. I did not even try to count them.

This is not the fault of those making the programme. They can only work with the material available. But it is a problem for archaeology. You might think that it is just a sad reflection of our profession in the past, and that things are better now. But I am afraid that is not the case because the Beeb could apparently only find men to comment on the work. Now, I know that all three commentators were people who have been actively engaged with research at Stonehenge in recent years. Indeed, two of them appeared in the earlier footage. But is it true to say that women have nothing to contribute to the Stonehenge debate today?

I wonder if the problem is a little wider than this? Where are the Mary Beards of British Archaeology? We need women with gravitas who can communicate, but what is gravitas? Well, off the cuff, lets assume that in order to have it you need an academic post (two of last night’s commentators were cited as in academia, the other was in popular publishing). I’ve just had a quick look at the staff pages of the four universities in Scotland that have archaeology departments. It is difficult to be certain because each lists staff in different ways, but it looks as if there are a total of 57 academic staff, of whom 23 are women and 34 are men. In order to assess whether or not they have ‘gravitas’ I then tried to investigate the standing of their post. Again it is difficult, but it looks as if there are 18 posts across Scotland at senior lecturer or above, and of these 3 are held by women and 15 by men (interestingly that means that at lower grades 20 are women and 19 are men).

Of course it might just be that women don’t do research on Stone Circles? I’m not going to get into that debate here, though I have a feeling that women are as interested in broadscale Neolithic topics as men are? I had a quick look at Colin Richards’ book Building the Great Stone Circles of the North: he lists 27 co-authors, of whom 18 are men and 9 are women.

I’m not sure where this leaves us. But I’m sad that archaeology can still come over as such a male dominated profession. In fact, thinking of people like Kathleen Kenyon and Isobel Smith, I’m sad that archaeology has ever come over as a male dominated profession. Perhaps men just get to excavate higher status sites?  Perhaps we listen more seriously to what men say? Perhaps women measure achievement in different ways? Perhaps women leave academia to move into other posts? Popular communication is a vital part of archaeology in the twenty-first century, though. So it would be good to break that barrier with more than a handful of women.

While I’m moaning – I’ve another gripe about the programme: where was the footage of Foamhenge? Channel Five’s full size polystyrene replica of Stonehenge lingers in my memory for the way in which seeing all the stones upright, as if functioning as a single entity, made me think in different ways about the monument. Of course, last night’s programme was only drawing on BBC archives; my fantasy now is for a programme that uses all the material, whatever the channel, and incorporates a greater diversity of voices in the twenty-first century commentary on past interpretations.

The Cornflakes of Prehistory

mince pies
Mince pies are a good example of how value laden a food can be. On the surface merely small pastry covered pies and yet to those who celebrate at this time of the year it is hard to see a pile of mince pies without evoking strong emotional feelings. We are letting our imagination add to the physical evidence.

I much enjoyed the recent session on Archaeology and Fiction at TAG (the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference). Discussion was stimulated by a variety of papers from archaeological authors, illustrators, playwrights and poets – among others.

I attempted to look at the nature of truth in archaeological writing. I’m not the first to do this, it is an old conundrum that we rarely appreciate just how much imagination we use when we interpret the data that we are so highly trained to collect. And, of course, we can also question the objective nature of that data: the eye of the beholder and all that! I don’t think it does any harm to revisit this debate; it helps us to remain humble about the so-called academic wisdom that we all wish to produce.

It struck me how much our values have changed. As a profession I think we can be quite snobby about the ‘value’ of archaeological novels as opposed to archaeological textbooks. Yet I’d lay a wager that the novels reach a larger audience. One of the things I do for a living is to read the works of aspiring novelists and provide guidance on the archaeological settings and data that they use. Occasionally fellow archaeologists have been quite surprised at this, and yet, if we do not take the time to work with those who popularize the results of archaeology, then we certainly have no right to question their final output. Not everyone writes novels that I’d read out of choice, but everyone has an audience and everyone has the right to publish. The past is not for archaeologists to guard. If our academic texts are not immediately user friendly then we have a duty to help out.

It is interesting that in the past we gave status to storytellers, those who constructed stories to inform us about the world around us. In recent centuries this has lessened. We have diminished the didactic power of fiction and increased the distance between fiction and fact (look at the relative values of ‘academic’ papers and ‘popular’ writings in the recent REF evaluation of universities). It is salutary to realise that they used to be one and the same.

Academic narrative is no more factual just because it is academic than popular narrative is fictional just because it is popular. Archaeological fact is indeed the foundation of all interpretation whether academic or popular but it is what we do with it that matters. It is just the springboard for what must follow and without interpretation it is sterile. That interpretation is the job of the storyteller (for which read illustrator, game-maker, film producer and so on).

Excavation can give us a bowl. It can even give us traces of cornflakes. But it requires interpretation (and imagination) to combine them into breakfast. And even more imagination to communicate to others the significance of that breakfast to the people who ate it.

Whatever breakfasts your Yuletide rituals demand – I hope you have a merry time and a well-earned break over the next couple of weeks.

December sunrise Orkney
Solstice sunrise. December 2015, Orkney.

 

Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Scotland in a nutshell

Structural remains from Rum
Elusive remains of Mesolithic structures from the excavations at Kinloch, Rum, drawn by Alan Braby.

I’ve been asked to provide a five-minute summary of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Scotland. It is an interesting exercise, but it is difficult. I’ve not done it entirely to my satisfaction, but here is the ten-minute version!

The period between 14,000 and 6000 years ago was a time of considerable environmental transformation. Change was very much the norm for those who lived in Scotland at the end of the Palaeolithic and into the Mesolithic.

Perhaps the main transformation was the ending of the last great Ice Age and in some ways all things lead from this so we need to understand it. Another, relevant to the mobile hunter-gatherers of northwest Europe, was the generally rising sea-levels that led to the loss of Doggerland. But to highlight these masks a dynamic world that encompassed a wide range of change, all of which was relevant to the communities seeking to survive in Scotland – we can’t separate people from their environment. When considering human activity at any time we have to be fully aware of the world in which people lived and of the long-term and short-term challenges they faced. Among the relevant challenges for this period are the climatic deterioration known as the 8.2 ka cold event, which had widespread impact including a drop in temperature, increased windiness, and decreasing rainfall, though it was short and sharp – lasting for around two hundred years.

It is also important to remember that broadscale accounts mask specific events such as bad winters, droughts, winds and storm surges, and we do need to hold these in mind because it is precisely these events that impact upon the lives of individual communities. The single event that has received perhaps the most attention in recent years is the tsunami associated with the Storegga Slide. Dated with increasing precision to around 6150 BC it would have had devastating impact. Tsunami deposits have been found at heights over 20m in Shetland and it is likely that there was a knock on effect everywhere, compounded by the fact that it was unpredictable and occurred during the height of the 8.2 ka cold event.

Moving to the people: the inhabitation of Scotland during the Late Glacial has been a matter of some debate characterised by increasing evidence from finds of stone tools, of periodic human activity prior to the Younger Dryas (the re-establishment of glacial conditions between roughly 10,500 BC – 9700 BC), and culminating in the on-going excavation by Steven Mithen and Karen Wicks of an Ahrensburgian type assemblage (about 12,000 years old) from Rubha Port an t-Seilich on the west-coast island of Islay. The precise arrival of Mesolithic communities in Scotland is equally shrouded in uncertainty. We follow the stone tools because they have survived but do we always understand them? Broad blade microlith technologies of a type used to identify the earliest Mesolithic communities in England do occur in Scotland but they are rare and, as yet, not securely dated so that interpretation of the activity that led to them is weak. Narrow blade microlith technologies are more common and, in general, may be dated from the mid ninth millennium BC onward. Setting aside the theoretical weaknesses of equating tool technology with cultural community, the overall picture is one of increasing evidence for hunter-gatherer groups, and probable diversity between communities, from this period onwards.

A challenging aspect of the evidence for Mesolithic Scotland is the way in which the majority of sites are coastal, and we have to ask ourselves whether this reflects archaeological reality? The existing evidence suggests the presence of highly specialised communities well able to exploit the marine and littoral resources, and for whom water-born transport may have facilitated coastal mobility, but how much did they penetrate the uplands? We assume they did: emerging data illustrates the use of the montane interior even during times of climatic stress such as the 8.2 ka event. Are these the same groups? In some places it may well be that a single group made use of a particular river system, but in other areas research suggests that separate coastal and inland groups existed.

One aspect is notable: the growing evidence for structural remains excavated over the last 30 years. Much has been made of the traces of post-built circular structures that are interpreted as semi-permanent. In Scotland these occur within the ninth millennium BC, though that at Mount Sandel in the north of Ireland has recently been re-dated to the early eighth millennium BC. They seem to have been in use during a time of stable climatic conditions, yet at a time when relative sea-level change (and concomitant land loss) was likely to have been most rapid. Their occupation occurs prior to the 8.2 ka cold event and to the Storegga tsunami. Many, but not all, occur in close proximity to the present coast.

These structures are not the only evidence we have for Mesolithic habitation however, other remains include light shelters and foundation slots. They occur across Scotland from Orkney to the Solway Firth. Most are found near to the coast (perhaps reflecting the evidence in general), but inland sites are being discovered (most recently at high altitude in the Cairngorms). With the exception of the site at Morton (where the interpretation is difficult), all yielded narrow blade microliths. Many sites have early dates, back to some of the earliest evidence for the Mesolithic in Scotland, but there are sites with later dates such as Cnoc Coig, though in general the later Mesolithic archaeology is less well represented and less well understood. On some sites a combination of different structural remains has been recovered.

Interpretation of the more robust structures has proved challenging to Mesolithic archaeologists seeking to validate paradigms of a mobile society. One solution has been to tie them to evidence of environmental instability; are they associated with increased competition for resources as the Doggerland landmass diminished? Actually I think it is more likely that they are a result of stability. Be that as it may, if we wish to create a more complete understanding of this period then it is necessary to consider all the evidence and not select specific ‘interesting’ elements.

Physical evidence apart – what about the people? There is very, very little skeletal evidence for Mesolithic Scotland. So, how many people were there? Estimation of population size where the archaeological record is demonstrably patchy is fraught with difficulty. In 1962 Atkinson suggested a total population for Scotland of about 70, but this has long been considered an underestimate. Tolan-Smith suggested that by the end of the seventh millennium BC population had reached maximum carrying capacity, but he does not actually say how he calculated this, nor give any numbers. More recently Wicks and Mithen have tackled the problem in a different way, using radiocarbon dates as a proxy; they don’t provide absolute numbers either, but their work is interesting because by postulating the possible reduction of population in western Scotland during, and after, the 8.2 ka cold event they are suggesting that population density was large enough to be challenged by the deterioration in environmental conditions.

To close, it is very easy to present the Mesolithic as some sort of utopia. But we have to be wary of this. We are dealing with a long period, a long time ago. Ethnographic work on hunter-gatherers should remind us that there is no average community, no average territory and no average life-style. Nevertheless, what we do see is that life as a hunter-gatherer is finely balanced. Sophisticated knowledge of the environment is weighed against all sorts of issues such as population density, environmental stability, and mobility in order to build a viable long-term lifestyle. This can be knocked out of kilter. Change, in any one part of the system, invariably affects all other aspects. It is an exciting aspect of modern archaeological studies that rather than simply gathering data we can now start to play around and look at elements such as this. We assume that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were consummate survivors (how else would we be here), life was undoubtedly difficult, but we have started to see examples of adaption and that is very gratifying.

Conversations with Magic Stones

Conversations with Magic Stones
View of the main cases in the exhibition at The Pier Arts Centre, Stromness

I was recently asked to review a rather interesting exhibition. The review has now been published in The Orcadian and I have their permission, and that of The Pier Arts Centre who commissioned it, to publish it here.

Any exhibition bears a similarity to an onion – it is many layered. Not only will it be viewed by people of different backgrounds, each of whom takes away a different experience, but, in addition, a range of separate meanings is, inevitably, built in by the creators and their objects. Consider then, the fate of the hapless reviewer when confronted by an exhibition that not only presents several collections of material in interesting juxtapositions but also does so in separate locations. Such is my lot.

Conversations With Magic Stones takes place in three locations: The Orkney Museum; The Pier Arts Centre; and Stromness Museum. It makes use of four categories of material: contemporary art; modern/classical art; Orkney archaeology; ethnographic pieces.

The largest display occurs in the Orkney Museum where we are treated to a spectacular collection of ancient stone tools from Orkney. They range from as much as 12,000 years old to around 3000 years old, some are piled high, others neatly set out in isolation, a few nestle in the tins and boxes where they have rested since their discovery in years gone by. Alongside them, on the walls and in the cases, are works of art that draw on their inspiration. A shiny ‘carved stone ball’ of bronze by Babette Bartelmass plays with the idea of material as immutable, as do flint axes of glass and metal by Paul Musgrove. The latter’s prints, which layer images of the artefacts under site plans, notes and old labeling, create a new view of the past, as seen through the obscuring discolourations of time. Wall panels provide an encyclopaedic background of information. Through these we learn of the collectors who amassed many of the pieces on display.

In the Pier Art Centre, we are taken in to the studio, and mind, of Barbara Hepworth whose comments about ancient stone tools prompted the title and thrust of the work. Seeing her sculptures in juxtaposition with a selection of Orkney artefacts is chilling. It is a none too subtle reminder that for everything, even the most perfect art displayed in isolation on a carefully designed pedestal, there is a backstory and a context.

After the archaeological staginess of the Orkney Museum and the clarity and light of the Pier Art Centre, the Stromness Museum comes as something of a shock. The cases here are deliberately busy, the objects weird and wonderful, and the stories exotic. Here we learn of the pieces that found their way to Orkney from overseas, of the roles they played in their homelands and of the meanings they brought to Orkney. It is an evocative reminder of the way in which our roots help to shape the people we become and one cannot help wondering about the connections made between the worlds of past and present.

Overall, the exhibition creates some powerful impressions. The focus on the work of collectors, early excavators, and artists, invites us to enter a state of intellectual curiosity. We meet the people who sought to make sense of the relics of the past that were coming out of the ground across Orkney. People who cared passionately about the objects they were finding, and who handed this interest down to their descendants many of whom still treasure the pieces. With the objects come stories and a wonderful by-product of the work has been to enshrine these memories for the future, to prolong the life of the objects from their prehistoric origins into the twenty-first century and to lift them from fodder for archaeology into more complex beings – as the catalogue says: ‘an afterlife of things’.

It is an exhibition that, generally, eschews the principals of archaeological display. Photos lack scales, pieces lack provenance. This can be annoying for the academic viewer but it does avoid clutter and transforms the general atmosphere into that of an art exhibition. In reality, there is a catalogue and the Orkney museum does provide a handy computer to access data such as location, date and context through the project website. The feeling of having strayed from archaeology into art is emphasised by the wonderful photographs. It is a rare photographer indeed who can provide close up images of tooling or texture that will allow enlargement fit for a wall panel. In the Pier Art Centre this theme is pushed further as conventional archaeological terms are dropped and the artefacts become part of the artist’s studio.

Staying with the Pier, there is, perhaps unconsciously, an element of hagiography in the way in which the only woman to really feature in the exhibition has this location devoted to her. There is, for this reviewer, a twinge of regret that the women who undoubtedly collected elsewhere in Scotland, were not apparently collecting in Orkney (too busy minding the farms perhaps?). Yet, whatever happened in the past, it is worth noting that the exhibition team are more equally divided: they should be congratulated for a challenging, thought provoking display.

You will find the project website here

And the artist’s catalogue here

The Travel Bug

Farm museum
Orkney provides a range of experience for the visitor, the farm museum here, at Kirbuster, is a nice contrast to the prehistoric remains.

I’ve been working with a well-established travel company who want to develop a tour of Orkney for their guests. It is a fun thing to do, but it is more complex than you might think. To be honest, once the tour is up and running, being a guide-lecturer is pretty much of a doddle. You are paid to visit first-rate sites with which you are familiar and chat about them with a bunch of interesting people. The conversation usually ranges widely and friendships are formed. It is always an intense experience, but it is one that I enjoy.

There are, however, several different elements necessary to build a tour from scratch and it is important not to leave any of them unexplored. First of all, of course, it is necessary to select the sites. In a place like Orkney that is not as easy as it may seem. There are so many interesting sites here that it can be more a matter of which visits to leave out. Some don’t have adequate parking. Others don’t lend themselves to coach tours (locations where only two or three people can enter at a time for example).

Then you need to group those sites into meaningful days, and decide in which order the days should come. First time visitors to Orkney are always keen to see the World Heritage sites so I tend to suggest that they come first. It also makes sense to visit Skara Brae before the other Neolithic sites because that is where you get a glimpse of the everyday life of the average Neolithic islander. Wherever they came from in Orkney, the people who knew the stone circles, buried their dead in the tombs, and experienced Ness of Brodgar, their lives were rooted in the domestic routine that was played out in communities of houses similar to those at Skara Brae. Similarly, it is hard to understand the significance of the Renaissance vision of Earl Patrick Stewart as expressed in the Earl’s Palace in Kirkwall, if you have not explored the northern foundations of life in Orkney in preceding centuries under the Norse Earldom at sites like the Brough of Birsay or Quoygrew.

Finally, it is, of course, important to combine outdoor sites with the museums. But we have more museums than many people think – which to include? The Orkney Museum in Kirkwall holds the artefact collections that provide colour to the framework set by the archaeological sites. The two farm museums offer an atmospheric background to more recent times, Stromness museum has an eclectic collection that ranges widely with something for all interests, the Scapa Flow visitor Centre at Lyness holds fascinating material related to the two World Wars and in particular the scuttling of the German Fleet, and the Pier Arts Centre houses an important collection of art, not to mention local and traveling exhibitions. And that is not all of them.

There is an order to things.

But that is not all. With the basic framework comes the nitty-gritty. How long should we spend at each site? Where should we have lunch? Where should we stay? What about evening meals? Lectures? Free time? It is like doing some sort of immersive jigsaw puzzle. Luckily, I don’t have to work it all out myself, there are those much more experienced than I in the logistical detail. My job is mainly to advise on presenting 10,000 years of island culture at its best. It is not all archaeology – it is also about helping people to understand Orkney today, and the way in which the past has contributed to the present. It is nice to try to sneak in little things that others might miss, or off-the-beaten-track sites that you might not access if you were not in an organised group. Visiting remote and small places like Orkney can be quite daunting for people who are not sure of the infrastructure up here which is why it can be easier to come on a tour.

And all of this is without consideration of the current debates as to whether, or not, tourism is ‘a good thing’. That, I think, would be a whole new blog post and I’m not going to get drawn into it here.

In this case, anyway, I think we have done a good job. I’ve enjoyed thinking about how to present Orkney so that people really have a fun, and interesting holiday. They are not going to see everything, but hopefully they will leave feeling fulfilled and with the knowledge to return one day should they wish to explore other parts of the islands.