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.

 

 

 

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

Using your voice

The Barberellas in concert at the Stones of Stenness, Orkney. How did the original users of the monument sound?

A few months ago I  spent a week working on voice and communication with Kristin Linklater. It was a fascinating experience that got me thinking about all sorts of things. I never set out to be an academic (if, indeed, I am one). I was just Continue reading Using your voice

Lockdown Archaeology

What will the archaeologists of the future make of our present situation in lockdown? Will they even be able to see it? Excavation in progress on the Mesolithic site at Kinloch, Rum, in the 1980s.

I’ve been wondering about the archaeological footprint of the lockdown.

Right now, it impacts on everyone across the United Kingdom. No one is untouched by it. It is a big event globally. But will it be visible to archaeologists in a few centuries time – what about millennia? I’ve always been fascinated with Continue reading Lockdown Archaeology

Lost voices

The people of the past remain elusive no matter how much research we undertake. Nevertheless, some are brave, or foolhardy, enough to try to interpret past lives. It is important work (image shows Alex Leonard’s artwork for the cover of a nice teaching resource by Forestry and Land Scotland).

Reading the accounts of some excavations in Australia recently has made me rather melancholy. We have amassed a tremendous volume of data and investigation regarding the Mesolithic communities of Scotland. But something Continue reading Lost voices

Pandemic Phenomenology

Fishing in Lapland
Archaeology is about people in the past and their lived experience. But really, are any of us equipped to pontificate on that?

There is an archaeological method known as phenomenology. It is sometimes treated as a bit of a joke – being both difficult to spell and to pronounce, and consisting, as it does, of a consideration of the experiential aspect of monuments and landscapes. It has been critiqued (and I paraphrase), as the discipline of feeling the sand between your toes or the sun on your back. It is a hard technique to quantify, and current trends in archaeological investigation tend to prioritise quantification.

The coronavirus outbreak has got me thinking about phenomenology.

I’m wondering if it has not, just a little bit, exposed the arrogance of western societies in the twenty-first century. Why should we be immune to the public health scares that our ancestors endured? When you get cancer (and I have done that road trip), you are often told to embrace the attitude of ‘why should I be spared’. It is, apparently, healthier than getting angry over the fact that you have fallen foul of that particular condition. Actually, I never really found that it worked for me. But I am finding it useful, and interesting, to consider the ways in which previous communities struggled in the way that we are now struggling. Why should we be spared?

My ancestors, and yours, lived through the global outbreak of influenza just after the First World War. Down the centuries (and millennia before that) they had to deal with plague, smallpox, typhoid, and cholera. Amongst other things. They lived in a world where you could not take longevity for granted. They, collectively even if not individually, survived. Why should we be any different? I draw strength from their strength. Yet I think, perhaps, that we may have grown a little complacent.

The assumption of longevity that most of us enjoy today is a very modern luxury. It relies on cultural, social, geographical and financial factors. But few people stop to consider that. To start with, it assumes that we will always have enough to eat. There are still far too many around the world for whom that is not something to take for granted. It assumes that we will always have access to sophisticated healthcare. That is not a given either. It assumes that we live in a stable and peaceful political system. And it assumes that we will have continued financial security. Less than half of the world’s population fall into the category where these issues can all be taken for granted. And until very recently the difference between surviving and not-surviving was minute, even for our own predecessors.

Even for those of us who do take it for granted, the boundary between safety and crisis is in reality very thin. In actual fact it is transgressed every day. We choose to ignore that.

The link between the austerity measures practised in the UK and a rising death rate is easy to track. It has not stopped us practising austerity. Presumably because those who are most affected have little voice.

The descent into chaos of countries like Syria, Yemen, and various African States, caused by war and famine is on our news every night. We read how many modern asylum seekers and refugees are middle class professionals: doctors; nurses; teachers; engineers; and the like. People who were once defined by their profession and wish that were the case once more.

We are all, no matter how safe we feel, but a hair’s breadth away from slipping down the cracks in the world.

The coronavirus pandemic has shifted the boundaries to reveal just how close to the netherworld of chaos are all of us. I’m hoping that perhaps we will learn not to take things for granted, and even to be more supportive of those who, though no cause of their own, live life on the wrong side of the divide. Most of us in the west are still privileged enough to be able to hope (if not rely) that, in this instance, modern medical science will come to our aid.

But really, do we deserve to be any different from our grandparents? Or their grandparents?

Meanwhile, for the archaeologist, now is the time to do some serious phenomenology. None of that wandering around some scenic ancient monument in the sunshine before you head off to the nearest gastropub for a slap-up meal and a craft beer or two. Once this is over, try heading for your nearest stone circle or burial mound in the wind and rain once your toilet paper and food have run out and you are terrified that greeting your nearest and dearest will transmit a potentially fatal virus. Drop your rose-tinted spectacles and get to grips with the dark as well as the light side of the past.

Ancestral Piles

The remains at Skara Brae in Orkney evidence generations of Neolithic occupants. Was this family representation significant to Neolithic society? One author thinks so in his new book.

We have a very short-term relationship with material culture these days. Nothing lasts for long and we are ever keen to seek a new version, the most up to date model. It is true with regard to both our largest and our smallest possessions. The Continue reading Ancestral Piles

New Publication – Into the Wildwoods

Into the Wildwoods is an imaginative new schools resource about the Mesolithic.

New Publication! Dare I say it is an exciting one. Not that I have done anything beyond churn out text. It owes everything to the talented Matt Ritchie, and his imagination and that of the team of artists and writers he put together. I don’t often work on publications for school so it has been fun. It is a free book, so I encourage anyone who is interested to download a copy whether or not you work with kids. It is a good read and the illustrations are fantastic. It looks great as a pdf!

Woman of Labrador

landscape pic
The north coast of Newfoundland from the air. A landscape not unlike that occupied by the trappers’ and their families.

I’ve just been reading a wonderful book and I thought I’d write about it. I don’t often feel that I want to push a single publication, but this has really got me thinking.

The book is Woman of Labrador by Elizabeth Goudie. It was first published in 1973.

Elizabeth Goudie lived among the trapping communities of Labrador in the early twentieth century. Despite only having some four years schooling, she set out to describe her life there, because of the changes that she saw taking place around her as the decades progressed. It is a straightforward account. Compassionate, unrelenting, and yet never complaining. Elizabeth was just as much part of the twentieth-century as my own grandparents in central London, and yet she provides an intimate glimpse into a life that was so different. Despite talking about the past, her memories are so vivid that she often talks in the present tense, adding a sense of immediacy to the world she describes. I don’t think she meant to, but she has given us a beautiful evocation of the life of a hunter-gatherer.

The book is full of quotes that highlight the ethos of the community where she lived:

‘Then there would be no more hunting because the birds would lay their eggs and people would not hunt birds anymore until September. That was the custom of the country. Everybody kept it’ (p48).

Of course, you cannot extrapolate one person’s thoughts to another, never mind the customs of one community to another, much less the present to the past. But reading her book provided me with a strong sense of how it was to live from the land in a way that most of us will never experience.

There is a strong idea of community. Despite the fact that individual families occupied isolated houses in separate bays, they clearly felt together. Help was not refused, food was shared in times of hardship, and beds were always available for those who might turn up.

The care taken to conserve resources is clear. There is a time and place for everything and the families lived to a strict annual round. February was a month of rest, March for catching rabbits and partridges, in April trout were to be caught, and in May people caught smelts to use as fertilizer on potato patches, there were seals to be caught in June, while in July and August the winter wood pile was replenished and work started to repair canoes and equipment for the winter, September was busy with berry picking, October with drying and preserving, November was the time to make and repair clothing, it took a whole month just to prepare the kit for the men to leave for their trap lines which they did in December, returning home in January. As she said: ‘Our months were not wasted and we had little time for reading or any kind of pleasure’ (p119).

It is a highly mobile life, from salmon camps to winter houses and so on. Journeys were mostly undertaken by canoe or dog sled, though long journeys on foot also took place, making use of snowshoes. She describes long treks with the family, often over several weeks, and sometimes in sub-zero temperatures, spending the nights with the families who lived en route. ‘A team of dogs can be great company when you are alone’ (p89).

It was a hard life, something Elizabeth only acknowledges in the later passages, where she describes the easier life they had from the 1940s onwards. More or less everything, from clothes, to furniture, fuel and food, had to be made or prepared at home. In several locations fresh water required an arduous walk, and sometimes had to be brought home as blocks of ice. Very little was bought: mainly flour and fat. There is an interesting description of the problems caused when the flour supply fails on one occasion.

Much of the daily work is undertaken by the women, men were away at the traplines for long periods of time. For this reason, women were obviously as skilled with a rifle as they were with needle, frying pan, or axe. Although there were medical services, these were not always easy to access and home remedies as well as first aid knowledge were much in demand. I now know how to make an effective poultice from juniper stems. It is also interesting to hear her talk of the problems of mosquitos and flies. One of the enduring questions relating to the earliest settlement of Scotland regards the presence (or not) of the Scottish Midge and its likely impact on life and general morale – not good, if her feelings are anything to go by.

It is a resilient society. Struggles and hardship are depicted in detail, and yet with a mundane tone that belies the emotions that must have come to the fore. Life was not easy, or comfortable. Food shortages, temperatures of thirty or forty below zero that would leave us gasping, debts to the company store, illness and injury. There is a moving account of the problems of digging a grave for a toddler in frozen ground. People had to develop a way around it all, often moving on when times got too hard.

Of course, everyone knew and understood the land in considerable depth. This is clearly demonstrated, though there is little overt discussion of the landscape within which lives played out. In some ways it appears a passive backdrop. True appreciation of the world in which people lived is seen on the few occasions when there was time for leisure and the writing becomes positively lyrical to express deep feelings for the surrounding beauty of the mountains and coasts.

Elizabeth’s community were not the only people to live in the region. There were also ‘Indian’ families, most of whom did not speak English. Though there was mutual respect, there seems to have been little contact between the two groups except when help was needed. It was a different world.

All things change and by the 1940s the construction of a military air base in Goose Bay precipitated the arrival of the end for the mobile lifestyle. Paid work was soon followed by chocolate, movies, roads and electricity. This book is just one of a suite of publications that describe bygone ways of life around the world, but it is one of the most vivid. I’m so glad she wrote it.

‘I would rather live back fifty years ago, because today you turn on your radio or television and you hear all sorts of news about going to the moon or war or whatever and you feel afraid that something fearful is going to happen’ (p 192).