Naming the parts: the basic framework for the past settlement of Scotland

Reconstruction, by artist Jan Dunbar, of an Early Neolithic farmstead in the east of Scotland.

Our understanding of the past inhabitation of Scotland is constantly changing as our archaeology becomes more sophisticated and new interpretations are developed. That is part of the fun of archaeology: there is always something new Continue reading Naming the parts: the basic framework for the past settlement of Scotland

Finding the right words

Cave painting.
Communication can be a complex business. Figure from the cave of El Castillo, Spain.

I love writing, I love playing with words to make them sound right and convey meaning. But I’ve become increasingly aware that the way I hear them inside my head, and the meanings I am trying to communicate, may not be same as the meanings and sounds received by those who read them. Continue reading Finding the right words

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

Stonehenge
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.