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).

Archaeology: the essential ingredient of Rewilding

Rewilding should not just be about remote places, it has to be about the urban landscape too.

I’m often asked about the lessons that archaeology can offer the populations of today. In particular, people are interested to know about research on past sea-level and climate change. In general, I am sceptical that archaeology has anything much to offer. Population levels today are so much higher than they Continue reading Archaeology: the essential ingredient of Rewilding

The Tourist Trap

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

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

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

Our place in the world

Visiting a remote port
Remote locations such as this, in Greenland, have become part of a more accessible holiday destination for some. But we can still not guarantee that favourable weather conditions will prevail.

Stuck out in the North Atlantic on a cruise ship that was dodging the weather last autumn, I found myself thinking about just how much we take our world for granted. This year, an exceptionally active hurricane season has affected both sea and land. The impact on the land is well documented in news broadcasts. That over the sea might be considered to be less but, it can be significant nonetheless.

We still rely on marine transport systems for many goods to travel from one continent to another. Tourism, and in particular the cruise industry, has become a major economic force. Itineraries are drawn up under the assumption that the journey from one exotic destination to another will be ‘plain sailing’. The ironic significance of the phrase is no longer lost on me, though one has, perhaps, to experience severe travel disruption before its impact in the days of sail can be fully realised.

When a cruise vessel has to change plans, the knock on effect is twofold. Firstly, there is the ship: those on board find that their holiday plans remain unfulfilled, while the company may see its profits dwindle as alternative plans, and routes, are put into place. Secondly, there are the communities that were set to play host. Many of these are surprisingly small, often with fragile economies. Tours are cancelled, guides have an unexpected day off, there is likely to be a glut of cake and scones as cafes face up to a lack of expected customers.

Somehow, it comes as a shock to everyone.

And yet, the weather remains one aspect of the modern globe that we cannot control. Surely we should not be surprised. The last few decades have been, on balance, pretty stable. Perhaps we have been lulled into a false sense of security. Or superiority. Travel, and transport, are part of the foundations of twenty-first century society and we have come to take it for granted that they will work as planned. I doubt that the Norse seafarers who crossed this section of the ocean with monotonous regularity felt quite the same. Neither, I suspect, did the crews of the clippers and other sailing vessels who worked their way across the seas. Much less the prehistoric groups who made their way along the coasts of northwest Europe at the end of the Ice Age.

I feel that one, unlooked for, aspect by which one might define society today and contrast it with earlier communities, is that we have become arrogant. Somehow I don’t think that they had quite such unshakeable belief that their technologies could master whatever the world might throw at them. Yes, they built endless stone circles, ceremonial centres and sacred places through which we assume they sought to propitiate their gods and ensure the future of the human race. But somehow one gets the impression that they were working with the world rather than against it. They encompassed a degree of flexibility in their lives. We, in contrast, seem to have set ourselves up against the forces of nature. And we are less flexible.

I’d prefer to return to a broader view of the world and our place in it. It might be a slower path, the outcome might be more uncertain, but it is, I think, the only way that our future can be assured.