Difficult Decisions

Archaeological remains are fragile and have to be carefully managed. Sometimes there are hard decisions to be made. In Orkney, the Control Tower sits amidst the remains of the airfield at RNAS Twatt

Recent publicity about the road plans at Stonehenge have highlighted the difficult issues that face the archaeological manager in going about their job. I’m not going to comment on that particular case – there is plenty of online opinion Continue reading Difficult Decisions

Archaeology and the future

Wind turbines at Burgar Hill. Energy is now a recognizable component of the Orkney landscape.

An ongoing research project reminds us of the ways in which archaeology encompasses even the most recent and widest uses of material culture. Orkney Energy Landscapes is a collaborative project between The Archaeology Institute, Continue reading Archaeology and the future

Fun and Learning in the Ether.

The Mesolithic is a fascinating field of research: what is happening in Mesolithic studies across Europe? Conferences provide an important venue to share research. Reconstruction by Pipeline.

I love academic conferences. I find that people are divided into conference-goers and conference-avoiders. I am an unashamed conference-goer. I love mixing with people to whom I do not have to explain my weird interest in subjects that Continue reading Fun and Learning in the Ether.

Defining our terms

Farming landscape.
The field boundaries with which we are familiar are all modern constructs. Archaeological sites transcend them. Careful recording and terminology is necessary when we do fieldwork.

Sites are key to the work of an archaeologist. But what, exactly, do we mean by a site? It is a term that we use all of the time, but it has become so commonplace that we rarely stop to consider what we are talking about. It is worthwhile Continue reading Defining our terms

Lockdown Dreams

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

We have all had a strange summer this 2020. Dreams of fieldwork as we wander the lanes around our homes and peer into fields wondering what we might find there were the farmer to plough the land. With this in mind I was asked to write a wee guide to the joys of fieldwalking for Dig it Scotland. You can read it here.


The Power of the Past

Logos from different parts of the British Isles that draw upon prehistory and look remarkably similar – how can this be?

I have two tokens for the lockers at my local swimming pool. One from the sports centre itself, one from the Prehistoric Society. Only recently did I realise how closely these two, apparently disparate, organisations are related. Both draw Continue reading The Power of the Past

Archaeology for All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We don’t want that.




Significant Sites?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remote Archaeology

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

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