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.

Hit by nostalgia

Excavating in the 1970s
Excavations at the site of Killellan Farm on Islay. I worked as a volunteer here in 1976 under the direction of Colin Burgess. As I remember we set up camp in the grounds of the Bowmore distillery and Colin organised food for everyone in a local hall.

The excavation season is upon us and adverts for diggers have been landing thick and fast in my inbox together with posts about work starting at several significant sites. It made me think about my own days as a ‘digger’.  In those days, you consulted the Council for British Archaeology Excavation Calendar in your local library and then sent off letters to prospective projects. It was a slow process. There were some perks, however, that seem to be lacking today; most notably money. Paying to work on a site was almost unknown, and only for the rich. Usually you were paid a weekly subsistence amount and, as I seem to remember, accommodation was arranged by the excavation project. This had the advantage that we all stayed together and a good dig social life soon built up. Friendships were made and held strong, I am still in touch with some of the people who I worked with in the early 70s and it always brings back memories to see a familiar name mentioned in the press or on social media, and learn what they are doing now.

The biggest advantage to this system was that it was possible to avoid serious gainful employment over the summer and gain valuable archaeological skills (and friends) while escaping the inevitable loss of savings that would arise from similar work today. If you chose your excavation sites carefully you could cover a wide range of periods, techniques and environments, all of which built up experience to stand one in good stead in the long run. And, in my day, the universities still had funds available to help those students wishing to excavate abroad: in that way, I got to work at Lazaret Cave in France and Hayonim Cave in Israel. It was often a steep learning curve, but one that was well worthwhile. My acquired skills were not restricted to archaeology: there were trips to hospital; catering for large numbers; the prevention of vermin; negotiation of foreign visas; even (surreally) the use of firearms. I can honestly say that my time as a youthful excavator helped to prepare me for a wide range of possible situations in later life.

I have no doubt that participation in an excavation today is just as rewarding in its own way. But, like all those who begin to see the younger generation filling roles they once occupied, I can’t help a feeling of nostalgia for times past. Ironically, perhaps the greatest lesson I learnt was that, having spent some time envying the responsibilities and role of the ‘site supervisors’, as soon as I found myself perched on the edge of the trench with a clipboard and a pencil I realised that I had made a horrible mistake. At that point, I wanted nothing more than to find myself back down in the trench at the centre of the action and with nary a care in the world.

Neolithic Isolation

Farm at Gallow Hill
The Farmstead at Gallow Hill in Shetland. This panorama gives an idea of the remarkable preservation of the site which sits on the surface at present ground level. The main house structure lies at the centre (with modern disturbance), while the remains of clearance cairns and field walls may be seen all around it. The complex also includes substantial outlying burial monuments.

I seem to be travelling a lot just now and it makes me think about the ease of mobility today and the way in which it transcends not just distance but also culture. We are all accustomed to the presence of items in our homes, often everyday items, which reflect a way of life very different to our own.

One of my journeys led me north to the island chain of Shetland. It is a great place with amazing archaeology and I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to spend three days there, discussing the archaeology with colleagues, and visiting some of the lesser known (but as it turned out no less spectacular), sites. Much of our discussion focussed on the introduction of farming to Shetland and development of the Neolithic there. The interesting element about this for me is that, although farming was certainly introduced by boat, there is little evidence that people, once settled there, kept up frequent contacts with communities further south. Repeated evidence for contact between Shetland and places such as Orkney does not appear until later in the Neolithic.

Alison Sheridan’s recent research suggests that, on the grounds of tomb types, the early farming communities may have come from the west coast of Scotland. We do not know for certain whether or not there were pre-existing Mesolithic communities here, but tantalizing hints of the use of coastal resources at an early date come from the site of West Voe in the south of the islands, where a team from Bradford has excavated a site dating to 3700 – 3600 BC. The finds from West Voe included both cattle and sheep bones and seem to indicate a community with both Mesolithic and Neolithic traits. This is, of itself, particularly exciting because, as I have argued before, it is particularly difficult for archaeologists to recognise the ‘blurred’ episodes that lay between our carefully defined periods. West Voe, it seems, is exactly this. Was this one of the first farming communities to settle in Shetland, or do the remains relate to a Mesolithic (or Neolithic) community that chose to adopt the ‘useful bits’ from their new neighbours? At the moment, we just don’t know.

Farming soon spread across Shetland and it is likely that agricultural land may have been more plentiful than today. Shetland, like Orkney, has been subject to rising relative sea-levels since the end of the last Ice Age meaning that coastal lands have been lost. We don’t yet have precise measurements for this but it is possible that relative sea-level was as much as 10m lower around 4000 BC which would mean that the topography of the islands was very different to that of today. As yet, there are few sites that date to this earliest farming period: perhaps a reflection of the loss of coastal settlements to inundation; or of our inability to recognise the earliest sites, particularly if they reflected the hybridity of West Voe; or maybe just confirmation that population levels at this time were, indeed, low.

The interesting thing is that the resources that we find on the Neolithic sites were all very local. And, despite the production in Shetland of stunning and apparently high status objects such as beautiful polished axes and knives of local felsite, we don’t get much evidence of Shetland-style products leaving the islands. Even in Orkney, where the islanders were, apparently, seriously into the production and acquisition of elaborate showy goods like Grooved Ware pottery, only two, possible, artifacts of Shetland felsite have been found. There is no evidence either that pottery such as Grooved Ware, or even architecture such as that of the Stone Circles, or the buildings at Ness of Brodgar and Barnhouse came north to Shetland. And, while research on the Orkney Vole and its possible Neolithic origins on the Continent may still be be controversial, there is no evidence for the spread of Orkney Voles into Shetland.

So, the available evidence suggests that the Neolithic islanders of Shetland did not look south for cultural connections. And the Neolithic islanders of Orkney seem to have been too preoccupied with their own southern networking to explore the possibility that there was benefit to be obtained from looking north. Only later, as economic and cultural horizons in the south of Britain shifted to the Continent and Ireland with the introduction of metal, did Orcadian communities apparently become aware of the availability of raw materials to the north.

I find this seeming isolation of Neolithic Shetland fascinating. Just how many groups of incomers made the lengthy journey north? How many people were needed to settle the islands? You’d not need that many breeding cattle and sheep, though the voyage cannot have been an easy one. Are the difficulties of the voyage reflected in the fact that there is so little evidence for return trips? Does the development of connections between the island groups of Orkney and Shetland in the later third millennium BC (when, for example, we see the export of steatite vessels from Shetland to Orkney) reflect improvements in sea-going craft as well as the possible decline of Orcadian connections further south?

Nevertheless, isolation did not equate with lack of success. The population of Neolithic Shetland may not have been large for the first few centuries, but communities survived. Work by Janet Montgomery of Durham University and her colleagues, suggests that there were, indeed, times of famine, but houses and elaborate tombs were built, and communities developed. With time, Shetland would become more a part of mainstream Britain. For now, it seems to me that the earliest farmers in Shetland may have adapted to their northern homeland by broadening their resource base and leaving an archaeological record that is both less clearly ‘Neolithic’ and, most likely, largely underwater.


The Patterning of Things

axe and knapping debris
What meaning should archaeologists ascribe to material culture?

Humans, as I read recently, look for patterns, even meanings, in things. Archaeologists are used to dealing with things and we certainly like pattern. Half (a generalization) of our data is derived from material culture, the ‘things’ of the past; we deal with the everyday, and other, objects with which people were once familiar and which have survived to the present day. We construct our narratives about the past from the interpretation of these objects. In order to do that, we look for the patterns and we try to explain them. Some of the patterns are obvious: a row of round bottomed pots; a collection of leaf shaped arrowheads, we assume that groups of similar objects relate to a common template incorporating certain desires and functions. Other patterns can be more problematic: the different shapes of certain stone tools can, for example, seem to blend into one another; one shape of pot can, apparently, be replaced by another. All too often, we find ourselves requiring an explanation for the differences, rather than the similarities, in the material that we excavate.

Thus, we have long struggled to explain the meaning of the different types of material culture that we encounter and of the changes in material culture that we perceive. Essentially, much archaeology continues to use the foundations set by Gordon Childe in 1925 (drawing on the theories of, among others, a prominent German archaeologist, Gustav Kossinna), who considered that different suites of material culture could be used to identify different groups with different social commonalities. These groups were generally equated with human communities (known as ‘cultures’) – with the people of the past and the particular traits of behaviour and belief that identified them as separate from their neighbours. Thus, certain types of decorated pottery might define a particular ‘Culture’, let us call it the Round Bottomed Culture, which might, over time, evolve into another Culture with different pots, let us call this one the Square Bottomed Culture.

Childe was working without the benefit of radiocarbon analysis, and the rest of the suite of scientific techniques on which we rely today. He looked for patterns across the different types of archaeological evidence he had to hand, and the general assumption was made that as one element of material culture changed, so other elements would change too. This, it seemed, backed up the idea that social culture was reflected in material culture. Today, the system is cracking, and yet we still seem keen to fit the data into his paradigms.

It is not difficult to identify patterns of material culture, but we struggle with their explanation, and even more with the identification and explanation of the moments of change between them. It seems that it is hard to get away from the idea that when one element changes so should everything else. It is also hard to get away from the idea that material culture equals community. As we refine the evidence with which we work, so it becomes obvious that multiple elements of material culture rarely change together, yet few studies have tried to go back to basics and quantify the chronologies of change. It is, it seems, easier to live with the flawed but familiar understandings of the past. This has led to some big questions and discrepancies that we seem reluctant to challenge.

In the UK, our hunter-gatherer ancestors of the immediate post-glacial period, for example, used tiny stone tools that we call microliths. Microliths come in two basic ranges: Broad Blade Microliths and Narrow Blade Microliths. Many years ago, Roger Jacobi published a seminal work suggesting that the broad blade microliths were earlier and defined those communities able to maintain contact with Continental Europe while narrow blade microliths had developed later and were characteristic of subsequent communities developing within the more isolated environment of mainland Britain. Jacobi’s work has undoubtedly helped us to make sense of the Mesolithic communities of the British Isles but there are two problems with his explanation. Firstly, the assumption that a one-size-fits-all explanation will hold good for the whole of the UK: in actual fact, in the north of these islands the chronological precedence of broad blade microliths is still in question. Secondly, the assumption that microlith type equals community: it might, but then again it might not, and we have not really examined the alternatives.

Moving forward in time, the development of a highly decorated, flat bottomed, style of pottery in Neolithic Britain was at first considered to herald a new society: Piggott identified it as the ‘Rinyo-Clacton Culture’ in 1954. Today, we would be more circumspect in our interpretations: recent research has focussed on the possibilities of increasing complexity and sophistication developing within existing communities (Richards and Jones in their recent book); or the idea that it might form part of a package of goods associated with a complex belief system that spread across Britain to overlie existing society (as suggested in recent popular works). Or both!

We still find it hard to move away from the ingrained wisdom of archaeological greats such as Childe. But surely, the time is ripe to go back to basics and re consider some of those basic foundations on which our archaeological understanding rests. We have the tools to provide more sophisticated studies of material culture. We have the tools to examine whether apparently coincident change really occurs and, indeed, to look for other correlations for example between elements of material culture change and environmental dissonance.

Past archaeologists were seeking to explain the patterns, it seems to me that it is the explanation of change that forms the pressing question for our times.

The Maze of Possibility

Structure 10 at Ness of Brodgar
The outer wall of Structure 10 at Ness of Brodgar under excavation in 2011.

The Guardian recently published a brilliant piece about new legislation in India which has banned the sale of alcohol within 500 metres of state and national highways (Safi 2017). The response to this has been the construction of various mazes so that prospective customers entering the grounds of the bar are required to walk the 500 metres before reaching their goal.

Have a look at the photo in the paper. The result, as you will see, is a layout that bears a remarkable resemblance to the layout of some of the well-known Neolithic buildings in Orkney such as Structure 8 at Barnhouse and Structure 10 at Ness of Brodgar. Both of these buildings have been planned so that they exercise careful control over the movement of those who entered, forcing them to travel further in their quest for the centre. I’m not suggesting that Neolithic Orkney was subject to the same stringent legislation over alcohol as twenty-first century India, but I do think that the Indian example provides a fantastic reminder that, where human behaviour is concerned, all is not always as it might seem.

As archaeologists, we tend to assume that the fancy layout, size, and level of control that these Neolithic structures illustrate all point towards the fact that they were high status buildings, perhaps even buildings that were not open to the common populace. India provides an excellent example where that interpretation would go horribly wrong.

It is always easier to identify and describe structure than it is to explain or interpret it. The problem is that we do, occasionally, confuse the two. We are often in danger of falling in to the trap that the visual complexity of something equates to complexity of purpose. Thus, we can see (we think), that the complex design of these buildings was designed to control the movement of people within them. But we need to be careful of assuming that that control fulfills the requirements of a complex society. It might, indeed, do so; but then again, it might not. We need more information.

Where interpretation (whether of buildings or artefacts) is concerned I always encourage people to read as widely as possible. Only by looking as far afield as you can, at as many contrasting situations as you can find, in as many different places, environments and times as possible, can you open your mind to the myriad of alternatives that our ancestors might have exercised. You have, of course, also to take into account context and related material culture. Nevertheless, this is a timely reminder never to rely on one or two apparent parallels that seem to bolster accepted wisdom, or the theories we happen to like. It is also a reminder that more complex architecture and layouts do not always equate to higher status, or even, dare I say it, higher purpose.

Sometimes, it seems, fancy architecture can, actually, be quite mundane in reality.