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?

The Forests of the Sea

submerged forest Nova Scotia
The traces of this submerged forest in the Minas Basin, Nova Scotia lie below some 12m of water at high tide. It is an evocative experience to walk among them.
The tree remains at Lionacleit on Benbecula are less impressive than those of Nova Scotia, but you can see here that a considerable amount of organic matter from the woodland floor lies preserved in the peat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We are slowly becoming accustomed to the idea that the world experienced by our ancestors was very different to our own, even within the span of a few millennia. Nowhere is that made clearer than when standing among the remains of a long-dead forest, especially when it lies in a landscape devoid of trees. Continue reading The Forests of the Sea

Scatter sites: more than meets the eye

Mesolithic Deeside.
This evocative image by Ali Cameron gives a good idea of the joys of fieldwalking. It is all about finding flints, usually in the rain! Mesolithic Deeside members at work fieldwalking the prolific sites along the River Dee in Aberdeenshire.

I’ve been thinking about lithic scatters a lot recently. For the uninitiated a lithic scatter is a collection of stone tools. They tend to be found on the ground surface, usually across the surface of a ploughed field, but they may also occur in other Continue reading Scatter sites: more than meets the eye

The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

Hon fellows
Courtesy of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland: 2018 new Honorary Fellows, Caroline Wickham-Jones, Diana Murray, Lisbeth Thoms, and Jane Ryder.

I am honoured to have been elected an Honorary Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

The Society was founded in 1780 and since then it has played an active role in promoting the heritage of Scotland. It is an impressive record. Clearly, over the years, it has had to change: matters that were considered significant 50 years ago Continue reading The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

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

Old Collections

Some of the stone tools collected by Dr Grieve. They are not all quite as interesting as this, but it will be fascinating to see what is in the collection. The finger ring is there for scale!

With the help of some generous funding from various research grants (Society of Antiquaries of London, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Marc Fitch Fund and Aberdeenshire Council) I have recently embarked on an exciting new project. Continue reading Old Collections

Is fiction really fiction?

Fiction
There is nothing like a good book: some of the novels that have been published about Skara Brae

I’ve been working on a paper about the benefits to the archaeologist of exploring fiction. It is a hotly debated topic just now. Afficionados of the Netflix series ‘The Crown’ might have come across Hugo Vickers fascinating breakdown of the accuracy of the series. Readers of The Guardian, may have read Simon Jenkins’ Continue reading Is fiction really fiction?

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. Continue reading The Passage of Time in Neolithic Orkney

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 Continue reading The northern reaches of Doggerland

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 Continue reading Searching for the Scottish Late Upper Palaeolithic

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

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

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.

The Tourist Trap

Traffic management can be an issue for the Orcadian tourist attractions on summer days, as here in the car park at Skara Brae.

I’m troubled by tourists. I like them, and I like to be a tourist myself, but, somehow, tourism has become a problem.

There are lots of reasons to appreciate tourism. It has always had a close relationship to archaeology and that continues today. Archaeology has a magnetic draw for tourists: sites are often in picturesque locations; ruins can be romantic; some hold the allure of ancestral homelands; others provide interest for the intellectual; many are exotic. There is something comforting about reminding ourselves just how deep rooted our past can be. Continue reading The Tourist Trap

The Nature of the Beast

The evidence for Palaeolithic activity in Scotland is slowly coming to the fore when we find related artifacts at sites like this one: Nethermills on Deeside.

Successful archaeology depends on the collection and study of evidence. It has developed over the years into a multi-faceted profession in which few grasp the full details of more than a handful of the possible specialisations into which we Continue reading The Nature of the Beast

Living in Mesolithic Scotland

The lives of our Mesolithic ancestors were very different to ours. What can they teach us?

I’ve been working on a text about life in Mesolithic Scotland for a teaching resource. It has got me thinking about one of my favourite subjects: the ways in which our life differs so much from that of our Mesolithic ancestors and yet we still value skills that would have been very familiar to those who made their home here eight thousand years ago. Continue reading Living in Mesolithic Scotland