North is the new East

Scotland as seen from the north.
We do not always have to put the north to the top of the map as our reference point. Sometimes it is worth altering our point of view.

When I studied archaeology many moons ago we were taught (to paraphrase), very much along the lines that civilization had come out of the east. It was a time of diffusionist ideas and thus it naturally flowed that new developments would appear first somewhere around the Straits of Dover and gradually work their way north. Text books, like Lacaille’s excellent ‘The Stone Age in Scotland’, followed this model, fitting the available evidence into a paradigm whereby early-looking stone tools in the north of Scotland were interpreted as representing archaic Mesolithic survivals, still in use in a backward northern society, centuries after people further south had taken advantage of more recent developments.

I can’t remember when I first became aware of the idea of perceptual geography, but I do remember being very taken with a map of the North Sea which I first saw in Bergen in the mid 1980s. I still have a copy on my wall. It looked west, from Bergen across to Scotland, and I suddenly realised that the world could operate very differently for those who do not need tarmac roads and governmental regulation from Westminster (or Edinburgh). It was an idea that I have tried to develop ever since. Thus, when people asked why a remote site like Rum was settled so early on, I could discuss the needs of the Mesolithic population and point out that, for a mobile, sea-going people, islands like Rum are in similar locations to the motorway service stations of England. Equally, if you skew the map of the North Sea, then the central position of Orkney in the maritime empire of the Norsemen becomes obvious.

As my research continued, it became clear that the earliest settlement of Scotland after the Ice Age was not a simple matter of people making their way slowly north as conditions improved. Rather, it looked as if there may have been several ‘homelands’ including perhaps somewhere in the vicinity of southern Scandinavia where the stone tools shared certain characteristics with those of northern Scotland.  Today, we might recognise this as affirmation of the migration of groups along the northern coastlands of Doggerland.

In recent years this has been followed by discussion of the primacy of societal and cultural developments in Neolithic Britain and the suggestion that elements such as Grooved Ware may have been part of a migration of ideas from north to south (an argument eloquently set out by Julian Thomas in his 2010 paper: The Return of the Rinyo Clacton Folk). Following this line of reasoning, iconic monuments such as Stonehenge become the culmination of seeds that first sprouted in the fertile fields of Neolithic Orkney and around monuments such as the Stones of Stenness.

I’m sure there are other examples in the intervening millennia but if we fast forward to today, it is interesting to note the extent to which things ‘northern’ have now become popular. We have Nordic food and design, Scandi-noir in publishing and on television, new histories of northern exploration, and a host of books exploring our attitude to the north. For the first time for ages, living in the north is no longer the symbol of the recluse but rather it is the trendy thing to do. At the same time our politics is fragmenting. Northern communities demand a voice and the developing primacy for everyday society of internet technology over the internal combustion engine is allowing them to develop it.

We no longer need to be able to reach London in a day. Those of us who live in the north, are happy in the north, and those who don’t, seem, increasingly, to wish they did. But then, as archaeologists, we knew this all along.

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

Storytelling

Runes at Maeshowe
The Vikings who carved the runes at Maeshowe were clearly literate and yet they were used to the power of the spoken word as a significant source of information

I was writing about developments in the use of sound as an interpretive, and even investigative, tool in archaeology.  It is nice to see archaeology diverging from the relatively narrow way in which it has presented itself in the past. I know that academic writing is an important means to communicate quality assured research, but personally, I find writing popular accounts much more fun.

Both academic and popular archaeology contain narrative – the stories that we weave to make sense of our views. Narrative has been important throughout human history. It predates the written word, of course. Today we pay attention to the way in which it is delivered and this affects how we receive it. Academic writing is meaningful and trusted. Popular writing is often looked down on a bit, though it may actually be easier to read and understand. Television – well, we are often not so sure, nowadays we are frequently concerned that it might be ‘dumbed down’ a bit, depending on the channel?  The Internet, curiously, has seen a swing in the opposite direction – from the realm of doubtful validity ten years ago, we have grown to trust many websites and even use them as a reliable source of information. Storytellers, we tend to regard as the least reliable, presumably on the grounds that they make up their stories. Yet they have the most honourable antiquity.

There was a time when the Storyteller was a valued and significant member of society. In many societies storytellers have been responsible for both the education of the young and for the keeping of communal history. Consider the Norse Sagas. They originally comprised oral tales, tales for the telling on long dark nights, sure, but also tales that provided valuable information about past events, people and distant places. This information was vital for the next generation to ensure that the way they went about things was informed by past understanding. And to help prepare them for new places and new situations. And yet, we are hazy about many of those who composed the sagas, how many of them there were, where they lived and so on. A few are mentioned, some we know by name, but there must have been many others who contributed.

In most cases, it seems, the stories were more important than those who wrote them. How different things are today! The cult of the celebrity writer often obscures our appreciation of the text. In academic writing, the use of jargon often obscures the meaning of the text. I’m all for jargon as a convenient shorthand to avoid having to explain everything – what an oxbow lake is, or the package that we call ‘Neolithic’, for example, but I hate it when it is used to dress up poorly thought through argument as something deeply meaningful. Too often jargon can be lazy and duplicitous. I’ve always felt that people should not have to work to understand my text. If an examiner, or book reviewer, finds it easy to appreciate what I want to say, then, in general, I find that they usually like my work more.

I’d like to get back to a world where good stories were valued whatever the means by which they were delivered. Academic writing has its place, but it is not the only way in which to communicate our work. Other methods reach a wider audience and they are just as significant.

Listening to the past

Bootleg Beatles
Sound is an essential element of the world in which we live. The sounds of our childhood are profoundly influential. The Bootleg Beatles at LunarFest 2015.

There is a real movement just now to make use of different ways in which to communicate archaeology and it is very exciting. This is not just through fiction writing, it encompasses a whole range of media including poetry (see the work of Laura Watts), art (eg: Aaron Watson) and sound (Ben Elliott and Jon Hughes).

One of the essential conundrums for those of us who work in the Mesolithic is that we are trying to communicate information about our Mesolithic forebears in a way which just did not exist in their world.  Even if they did have some form of written communication that we have yet to recognize, their world was largely an aural one.

After listening to Mark Edmonds talk about his work at Jodrell Bank the other day I was thinking just how much sound must have mattered to the Mesolithic community and wondering to what extent our sound-world differs from theirs. Obviously the content will be different. But what about the quality? How much were they aware of levels and tones that we no longer notice? It would be nice to think that we could start to consider this when trying to interpret sites. We tend to diminish the significance of the soundscape because our world has become so visual. But it was not so in the past. This is not a new idea. One project has been woven around the iconic site of Star Carr, where archaeologist Ben Elliott and sound artist Jon Hughes worked to explore the sounds of Mesolithic Britain.

It is important stuff because it helps to make our understanding of life in the past more complete.  We can never be sure precisely how people reacted to the aural world around them, but we can start to put together the suite of sounds that they would have encountered and by learning to investigate other senses beyond the visual we add depth to our explorations of the emotional reactions to the world in which people lived. These reactions went on to drive the physical world they created for themselves. And it is from this physical world that the remains of archaeology survive.

In this way we enrich our archaeological understanding. Phenomenology, while still mediated through the mind-set of the twenty-first century person, becomes truly multi-dimensional. Ironically, this step back towards the past has been made possible by modern developments in recording and listening technology as well as increasing awareness of the value of exploring a wider range of data.

And, of course, it is fun!

Timedepth in the Landscape

Midhowe area, Rousay
This shot of the island of Rousay encompasses remains from the Neolithic onwards, but where are the hunter-gatherer sites?

In the past (less so today), I was often approached by anxious parents, wondering about their child’s choice of archaeology as a subject for university study. One of my points was that, whatever your ultimate career, a degree in archaeology would enrich you for life. Not only were there all the usual platitudes about learning, thinking and research; more important was the point that, once you had studied archaeology, a walk in the countryside would never be the same again. And walking in the countryside is popular for many reasons.

It never ceases to amaze me how much there is to see in a piece of land once you have got your eye in. This point was admirably made by Dan Lee of the Archaeology Institute at UHI in Orkney recently when he led a group of us round the cleared community of Quandale on Rousay which he has been studying for a while now. There was just so much to see in the landscape: ruined steadings; burnt mounds; field dykes; barrows; tombs. The remains spanned at least four thousand years and spoke of the human condition: survival; success; tragedy; expansion; eviction; farming; life and death. Over the years, archaeology has made my countryside exploration so much more meaningful.

But there is a problem with this. When we focus on the remains that we can see, we recognise the traces of many, many past generations, but equally, we ignore the traces of many others. Prior to the mid fourth millennium BC most communities left no upstanding footprint to mark their passing. And Scotland has been inhabited since at least the tenth millennium, probably before.

The hunter-gatherers who inhabited the land before the advent of farming were just as significant as those who came after. But their traces are harder to find. They may be buried under peat, or subsumed below more recent remains. They are rarely obvious on the surface. For a discussion of this, have a read of the fieldwork section of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Report in ScARF. All too often we ignore the problem of finding these early sites, but by doing so we are in danger of losing an important part of our past.

Even where we do locate early material, it can be hard to deal with it effectively. We have a good management system for archaeology in Scotland based upon the work of two groups: Historic Environment Scotland (recently cut free from the Scottish Government, but still obliged to undertake statutory work); and Local Authority Archaeologists (whose knowledge of a region or country is rarely beaten). Yet this system is designed to look after upstanding, built features. Houses, tombs, roadways, earthworks: if people have made them we can protect and record them. But the hunters who lived here thousands of years ago rarely left upstanding monuments. They had a more subtle approach to altering the earth. Their mark is left in hearths, postholes, and flints. Especially flints, lots of flints.

When we find flints (or any other lithic tools), it can be harder to know what to do with them.  Statutory protection such as scheduling, is more difficult to enforce for a lithic scatter. At the time of writing it has never been done. It would be nice to see this situation remedied as a starter action by the new heritage body Historic Environment Scotland; it would enable it to make a significant mark on the legacy of good heritage protection and management that it has inherited from its predecessors. It would show that it is set to move things forward.

For the rest of us, we need to broaden the scope of our eye when we are out in the landscape. As long as we mentally prioritize the remains that lie above the ground we are missing the full extent of the richness and depth that lies around us. It is possible to develop a ‘Mesolithic eye’ and see the landscape through a reverse filter that restores an ancient topography. I’d love this to become as natural as the desire to see the remains of Medieval settlement or Neolithic ceremony.

 

 

 

 

 

Altered Awareness

Blick Mead spring.
Upwelling bubbles in the pool at Blick Mead give the impression of animated cup and ring carvings. The combination of stillness  with animation is a good example of the way in which boundaries can become more flexible.

The other week I touched upon the altered awareness that I believe any Mesolithic archaeologist needs to develop. A sort of ‘Mindfulness of the Mesolithic’. This is not just a matter of physical surroundings. It extends to other elements of the way in which we locate ourselves in the world.

Today, we make clear divisions between the measurement of physical space: distance, and that of temporal space: time. But has it always been so? Barry Lopez introduced us to the idea that physical distance can also be perceived as time in his book Arctic Dreams. A journey is not just one of 100 km. It is also one of two days. For some societies this is how the world is understood. If you travel just a bit further it becomes more complex. My colleague Richard Clubley was discussing how you move back in time as you move north: when the daffodils are almost over in the south of England in early March, they will only be just emerging for those who live in the north of Scotland. You get the same effect over a shorter distance as you climb a hill: you might set out in the early morning sunshine of a spring day, only to move back in time to late winter snows as you reach the summit.

The rigid boundaries which we impose to make our world understandable can be fluid for those with a different view. A similar fluidity applies to community and landscape. The family, to us, is a fixed concept that operates within strict limits and boundaries. We may include several generations, and we have learnt to accept some who make short term absences, but in general, we live with the same group of people year round. The moment when we leave that group can be traumatic, sometimes played out over years as we re-stabilize into a new independence. Equally, most of us are accustomed to the same piece of landscape throughout the year. It may be small or large; in general, it rarely varies.

Life for the Mesolithic individual was different. We assume that family bonds were recognised, but we are by no means certain that people lived within the same group of individuals year round. At times the group may have split and recombined according to season and task; moving out across the landscape in order to make use of resources. These task-groups may have been based on age, gender, or relationship, or perhaps a subtle combination of all three. At other times outside factors such as a particularly harsh winter, an overly dry summer, or the impact of inundation, may have led to other divisions. In times such as these it is often easier to find food and other resources for smaller groups. Occasionally events such as a significant kill, or a whale stranding would bring people together in larger groups, groups that could be made use of to rekindle old ties and forge new relations.

This was the way of survival.

Today, we find security in the known. We are really very conservative. We like to know what to expect, who to greet, and where we will find food and shelter. We are highly rational beings; we have divided and counted and categorized and described our world into smaller and smaller (and bigger and bigger) units.

I don’t actually think that life for the Mesolithic family was any less ‘known’. But I do think that they knew in a different way. I think they were more comfortable to ‘go with the flow’. In a smaller community it was easier to know everyone, yet live with some; to understand the landscape, yet move across less visited areas; to perceive the passing of the sun as the scale of your journey. Like us, their lives were carefully controlled in order to ensure survival. Unlike us, their control contained the luxury of flexibility.

Past Lives

reindeer butchery
The author tries her hand at reindeer butchery in Lapland 1982 – lack of skill was countered by hunger!

Have you been watching any of the ‘past lives’ reality shows on television? I find that they have a horrible fascination for me. I just wish that they did not call them by names that made use of history and archaeology. In some cases, they can get us thinking about the lives of our ancestors, but while the message should be related to the loss of ancient skills and the difference of the world, it rarely is. All too often they give the idea that life in the past was a long hard struggle.

I can understand that the message: that we really have things much better today, may be a comforting one to give out, but there is so much more that we could take away. For starters, how can anyone think that these programmes actually tell us anything about life in the past?

Those who lived in the past, whether hunter-gatherer or 19th century baker, inherited and developed a deep skill set suitable for their particular lives. Today we require a different skill set and this means that we have lost the precise skills that we once used for other things. Of course, you can train yourself up to hunt boar, till with oxen, or bake in a wood fired oven. But you will never be doing it instinctively in quite the same setting as your predecessors. The boar will be different: living in different woods; surrounded by different predators; and surviving in different numbers. The farming is different: oxen are less common and unused to ploughing; the soil has been cleared and cultivated with other equipment; it has been subject to the application of fertilizer and pesticides; seed stock varies; even the weather is likely to have changed. It is the same for the baker: flours vary; ovens vary; your own strengths and skills vary; as do the tastes of your customers.

In fact, though there are some universal requirements for shelter warmth and food, we are not the same people as those of the past. Our bodies may look similar but our needs have changed. We use different foods and we require different amounts of calories. We are used to modern clothing; how many of us would survive barefoot, or without a thick fleece jacket? We have different social norms and different expectations – not just from the world around us but also from our friends and family. It always amuses me when modern health and safety intrudes onto the set, or medics appear to remove a participant who has not managed to digest the right sort of protein. Sadly for our ancestors, no such safety nets were available. And yet some of them survived!

Putting yourself ‘back in time’ is a fascinating experience. I know because once, many years ago now, I tried it. It got me thinking and it influenced my archaeology profoundly. But it didn’t actually tell me anything about what people did in the past. Except that, whatever it was, they were bloody good at it.

These programmes are fun, many of us find them compelling television. But they tell us more about ourselves today; don’t let’s give them a spurious academic validity.

 

The Archaeological ‘Truth’?

Stonehenge reconstruction
Archaeology is all about telling stories – here in the interpretive centre at Stonehenge.

As you know one of my interests lies in the nature of archaeological truth.

Actually, I don’t believe that there is any such thing as ‘truth’ in archaeology – we can no more be certain of the motivations, or even the actions, that took place in the past, than we can of the reasons behind the things we did yesterday. But when we are writing we are all, as archaeologists, aware of this. Or are we? Given this lack of definitive proof we have to accept that without supposition there would be no archaeology.  But we have to learn how to use it properly. I think we have fallen into an archaeological shorthand that means that instead of saying: ‘the possible Neolithic houses at the site that we interpret as a village and which we call today Skara Brae’, we say: ‘The Neolithic houses at the village of Skara Brae’. Archaeological readers, we hope, will understand the caveats that go into any archaeological statement.

With this in mind, most authors will, at some point, preface their books with a statement to the effect that the interpretation presented may well change in the future. I don’t think most people have a problem with this – they accept that any discipline moves forward and the popular media keep people well aware of the advent and benefits of new archaeological techniques. When they were putting together the interpretive displays at Skara Brae, David Clarke and Pat Maguire tried to get around the issue of highlighting speculation by explicitly using a normal font face for ‘fact’ and italics for ‘supposition’. This works well – it looks good and does not prevent people from reading the text, but I wonder how many people have read enough to be aware of the reasons behind the change in type face?

Sometimes when we are working with non-archaeological colleagues, or those new to the profession, it can be more complex. When I was a recent graduate I felt strongly that because we could not verify the functional names we gave stone tools, like arrowhead, and because many pieces probably had multiple functions, we should eschew those functional names for more neutral terms. I was probably a bit of a pain about it. Over time, I realised that people did hold a more nuanced view of the terminology than I gave them credit for and I gradually relaxed. Now that I am older I find that the tables are turned and it is my turn to explain my use of traditional terminology.

One element of this that make me curious is the way that people fixate on some elements of our archaeological interpretation to the exclusion of others. Words such as ‘ritual’ or ‘ceremonial’ are guaranteed to raise the hackles of the interpretive purist, whereas they are much more likely to let terms such as settlement, or burial, go by unnoticed. To me these are equally laden. The ‘tombs’ of Neolithic Orkney seem to have been designed for so much more than simple disposal of the dead. And one of my personal bugbears is the unqualified use of ‘settlement’ when really we have no idea what went on. How do we define settlement even when it does involve an over night stop – could the camp-site that results from a group of 14 year olds celebrating the summer solstice be called a settlement? Is it domestic? I find that I am constantly seeking alternatives that are less value-laden – such as the bland ‘activity site’, or even ‘occupation’, when I am working on Mesolithic material. But then, of course, I don’t have burial sites or even many possible ceremonial sites, to worry me in Mesolithic Scotland.

Are we getting lazy at writing, and slow to re-examine the evidence for our deeply held beliefs? Possibly. Perhaps we are not good at welcoming new people into the profession and listening to what they have to say. We are certainly guilty of presenting unfounded suggestions as ‘gospel truth’. But, of course, we are just telling stories. We all need to remember that.

Creating Stories

Storm at sea
Watching a storm approach – when you live in the country the weather becomes something visual.

The vagaries of recent days have reminded me of one of the big differences that I have experienced since I moved north. Here, I experience the weather totally differently to the way in which it got me when I lived in the city.

In the city the weather was something that you felt. It was cold, or it might be wet, sometimes it was windy, occasionally it was hot. Here, there is so much more variety to it. For starters, the weather is something that you see, almost more than you feel. I love to watch big storms swirling across the sea towards the house. Once upon a time I found it hard to imagine the properties of air as something visual apart from the obvious times when fog or darkness interrupted my vision. Today I find myself obsessed with the sky and the clouds. I’m constantly looking up to see what is coming and from where. Sometimes it is just for the sheer beauty of it. Sometimes it helps me to prepare before I go out. Can I hang the washing out? Only if the white horses on the sea are not very pronounced. Which way round should I park the car? Bitter experience has taught me of the power of the wind on an open car door – more than once (I’m not a fast learner).

It has made me realise just how much our modern lives differ from those of the people we study in the past. It is not just the big things – stone tools and the lack of electricity. It is the total immersion in everything. It is hard enough for us to appreciate the way in which life can hang in the balance for the small scale subsistence farmer in a marginal environment. But the emotional experience of living is just so different as you travel back. No modern medicine – alters your perception of death; no fridges and freezers – alters your attitude to food; no central heating – alters your feelings about cold, clothing and food (have another look at War and Peace); no combustion engine – alters your perception of distance and home; no social networking – alters your understanding of friendship and communication. It doesn’t mean that we should not attempt to unpick the lives of our ancestors. But it does mean that we need to be aware of the boundaries within which we work.

I heard an interesting story on the radio about the problems of getting information from people today. Apparently, if you ask a simple question of a group of 100 men and 100 women you tend to get very different answers from the men to the women, whereas mathematically the patterning should be similar. But if you suggest that you will be checking the veracity of their answers, the difference vanishes. This, the presenter said, demonstrates the unpredictability of people. Left to our own devices we often ignore the rules. It is an elegant illustration of the conundrum that lies at the heart of archaeology.  As archaeologists we rely on the predictability of the people of the past and our own empathy with their imagined lives in order to build our interpretations of the evidence that we find. Sadly, not only are people unpredictable, but also our empathetic powers might have limitations.

So, archaeology is challenging – no news there. The upside is that as long as we take it on board that we are just creating and refining stories, there is always another one, another version to be woven out of the threads of understanding that we learn to play with every day.

Dating Problems

it can be easier to envisage time in a spiral
Time can be difficult for archaeologists to get a handle on. This depiction was drawn by Rhona Jenkins for my book: Fear of Farming.

I have a confession to make.

I hate dating…

To start with there are so many different types of date.

Take radiocarbon for example. I’m assuming you know how radiocarbon works (if you don’t there is a good explanation here). A raw radiocarbon date is a measurement of how much radiocarbon is left in an organic object, from which we calculate how long ago the object died. When you cite radiocarbon dates you can cite them as radiocarbon years: uncalibrated BP. But most people prefer to adjust them so that they equate to calendar years: calibrated BP; this is done by calibrating the radiocarbon date (which you will see referred to as a date, a determination, an assessment, an age or an assay), against organic material of known age (read about it here). A calibrated date is rarely a single year; it is more usually expressed as a range of years together with a probability in order to indicate the mathematical likelihood that the date falls within that range.

You have to know here that BP stands for Before Present. Except that it doesn’t – for uncalibrated dates it really stands for Before 1950, because that year has been accepted as a norm against which the decay of radioactive isotopes is measured. At the moment the little matter of 66 years seems but a tiny blip in the assessment of time, though we will have to do something about it as time progresses and measurements become more accurate.

Then of course you can adjust dates to the commonly accepted BC (Before Christ), except that in many countries it is now BCE (Before the Common Era). BC dates can be uncalibrated, or calibrated (usually: bc or cal BC). Uncalibrated bc dates are rarely used nowadays and usually achieved by subtracting 1950 from the uncalibrated BP date.

There are also calendar years (sometimes known as human years). And quite a lot of publications generalise as ‘years ago’. You will sometimes see dates quoted as 8 ka BP, which in general means 8000 BP and is usually calibrated, though the publication may specify that it is not.

Do you begin to see my problem? And I haven’t even begun to talk about the Bayesian analysis of dates (see here).

Add to the murk the fact that while archaeologists prefer quoting dates as cal BC, geoscientists will usually use cal BP. So, an interdisciplinary project can run into problems.

And not just interdisciplinary, multi-authored, projects; I’ve been reading a book that cites date ranges as uncal BP, cal BP, unspecified BP, years ago, 14C years ago, and cal BC; all in few pages of text. There are also a few uncalibrated original dates to play with.

It is a nightmare to make sense of it all. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m sure there must be a better way. For now, all we can do is plead for people to use one standard throughout their work, explain clearly what it is at the start, and stick to it!

I’m adding to this a link to the Archaeology Blogging Carnival that runs this month, perhaps there are other potential bloggers out there who like to think about archaeology!