Mezolith – Book Review

As you might have gathered one of my passions is integrating archaeology, and particularly Mesolithic archaeology, into everyday life. By happy chance I was invited to review the two Mezolith graphic novels which do just that. You can read my review in the most recent issue of Mesolithic Miscellany (volume 24.2) which is free to download here, or to view online here. You need to scroll towards the end of the journal. If you are a fan of graphic novels, or the Mesolithic, I recommend getting hold of these two books!

The world of Doggerland

High Seas Orkney
The sea can unite as well as divide… It can obscure and reveal. It conditions the way we look at things. What lies out there – beyond our coasts?

I’m watching events relating to Britain’s position in Europe with a kind of horrible fascination. Chronologically, my work concerns the period when the land that would become the UK was merely a mountainous, largely ice-girt, peninsula on the north west of the continent that we call ‘Europe’. I realise that this has biased my point of view. Continue reading The world of Doggerland

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

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!

Differing Views

Brodgar and students
The Communication of archaeology – our ultimate aim!

I have a problem and I am not sure how to resolve it.

How do we ensure that the papers that we publish present the most up-to-date information and analysis?

Academic publication meets strict standards, one of which requires that papers, once submitted, are sent to referees (usually two) who read the paper, check that the research is up-to-date, comment on the significance, and note any omissions, errors or muddled writing. Most people will ask a colleague or two to read a paper before submission – it is better to find out about weaknesses at this point in my opinion.

I’ve acted as a referee myself on frequent occasions and I hope my comments are useful. When the journal allows it, I prefer my name to be known to the authors (though I may not know who they are), because it will allow them to understand my point of view, and if necessary check the precise meaning of my comments. I don’t really believe in saying things that I’d not discuss with someone face to face.

In general, I find that the comments of referees on my papers always result in stronger papers. They see things from a wider point of view than I do because they have not been bound up with a particular project for the previous months (or years); they highlight things that, while obvious to me, are not obvious to others; they point out areas where my writing is unclear; and they are great at suggesting references that I have overlooked. It might be annoying to have to unpick your writing once you think you have signed it off, but in the end it is  worthwhile.

But – I am sure you can hear a ‘but’ coming…

But, just once in a while it all goes wrong and that shakes my faith in the system. I had a paper a while ago that was refereed by three people (I’m not sure why that was, it is the first time I’ve come across it, but perhaps that is the new standard). Curiously, each identified totally different weaknesses in the paper. The optimistic side of me would see that as a validation that my point of view, while not everyone’s, did not contain any total howlers. Unfortunately, that is not how journal editors work: they tend to be more negative so that in this case it merely tripled the weaknesses.

You can see their point: except that in many instances these particular referees disagreed with each other. One thought that the stone tools might be particularly early, another was disappointed that I had not explored the possibility that they represented a survival of that technology into late prehistory. In actual fact there is no evidence in Scotland for the early or late instance of this technique at all, though I suppose if we were hidebound we would never discover anything new. One was concerned that I had not undertaken a Bayesian analysis of the (poorly contexted) radiocarbon dates; this raised the vision of Patrick Ashmore who taught me so much about the unreliability of dates based on uncertain contexts, something that I’m not sure even the most sophisticated of Bayesian work can remedy. I could go on, but I think you get my point.

Of course, it is possible to argue your case with an editor, but in my experience this is rarely successful; editors tend to assign academic precedence to referees rather than authors, even when it is the latter who have been studying a particular subject or site. And, I always have that niggling feeling – ‘what if they are right’. Having my work questioned makes me doubt myself. I know I should be more resilient, but my inclination is to go through the comments and try to cover each one in text. This might lead to some strange discussion of issues that most people would not regard as relevant, but it does make everything blindingly obvious. Sometimes the level of detail is such that one is left with the lurking feeling that you should have added the referees as co-authors.

Being a referee is a big commitment. For every journal there is an army of unpaid referees, reading, thinking and commenting. We have to thank them. But it is not a perfect system. Occasionally there are scores to be paid; or simply the desire to let off steam after you have had to deal with some picky referee yourself; sometimes arms are twisted to referee something where you really don’t have the expertise. Usually, these things show up and, of course, that is the reason that the double referee system has been developed. But as long as editors bow to the referee’s opinion without any thought, then the system is flawed.

I’m not sure how to improve it. We need to ensure academic excellence. But I’m coming across more and more examples of refereeing that is somehow not quite working. I’m hoping that with more open dialogue we might be able to return to the system where the referees work to ensure the significance and quality of publications, without rewriting them on behalf of the authors.

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.

Significant Places

Blick Mead
The main spring at Blick Mead has a very special atmosphere, though it lies in modern woodland.

Much has been written of the way in which natural places are significant to hunter gatherers and we assume that this was the case for those who lived in the British Isles in the Mesolithic. Not for them the dominance of the green earthen bank, the white quartz (or chalk) façade, the grey stone megalith. Instead we imagine that they related to locations that were more a part of the natural world. Locations where familiar things (water, trees, rocks), took on unfamiliar form.

The problem with this is that it can be hard to prove. In many cases, the very nature of the place will have been unlikely to survive the passage of the millennia since they were in use. Where they have survived, it goes against the archaeological grain to investigate a potential site that may, to all intents and purposes, ‘not be there’.  There are, however, a few locations that seem to tick the box and I know of two that are under investigation. I have been lucky enough to visit both.

High in the Cairngorms, at the point where the path climbs up into the exposed pass that we now call the Lairig Ghru, a waterfall, known as the Chest of Dee, cuts across an exposure of rock to fall to a series of dark pools. From here the River Dee makes its way eastwards out of the mountains and through fertile woodlands to the sea at Aberdeen. Footpath maintenance below the waterfall in 2005 revealed a handful of flint tools among which narrow blade microliths were recognised.  Since then excavation by students from the Universities of Aberdeen and Dublin (under the direction of Gordon Noble and Graeme Warren), has discovered plentiful evidence of Mesolithic activity.

At the opposite end of the topographical spectrum, at the southern edge of the Wiltshire Downs, the River Avon connects to a natural pool in the chalk, known as Blick Mead. Today, the pool lies within relatively recently planted woodland, but visitors are stuck by the atmosphere. It is a weird, yet peaceful place. The water is apparently still, yet it moves in an endless series of animated circles. This is not the action of fish, it is the result of bubbles as warm spring water comes to the surface. Excavation by students from the University of Buckingham and local volunteers (under the direction of David Jacques) has yielded abundant Mesolithic stone tools and other evidence.

In both cases these sites are linked in to a wider landscape. Mesolithic evidence extends to other sites in the close vicinity. Curiously, both have associations with great Mesolithic pit features: Blick Mead lies just over 2.5km from Stonehenge where a series of pits close to the henge site are interpreted by English Heritage as totem pole-like posts erected between 8500 and 7000 BC. Slightly further from the site at Chest of Dee, but along the same river, is the site at Crathes, where a line of carefully curated pits has been dated to around 8200 BC. Though these pits lie some 75km from the waterfall site, half way between the two is the narrow Pass of Ballater, where mineral deposits shine in lurid colours high in the rocks. Traces of these minerals were linked to the materials within the pits.

Our understanding of the way in which our Mesolithic forebears saw the world and their place in it will always be hazy. But there is increasing diversity in the sites that we recognise and this is exciting. Not only do we need to refine the ways in which we study the traces they left behind. We also need to distance ourselves from our twenty-first century appreciation of the world around us. At sites like these, we can start to enter a different state of awareness.

You can read more about these sites here:

Jacques, D. and Phillips, T. 2014. Mesolithic Settlement near Stonehenge: excavations at Blick Mead. Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural history Magazine, 107, 7-27.

Stonehenge Mesolithic Posts

Chest of Dee – we have submitted a paper to Antiquity, but in the meantime here is a video of the work on the site.

Crathes Mesolithic Pits

 

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.

Long Sight

Kirkwall - distance shot.
Zoom lenses allow us to see from afar – but perhaps the hunter-gatherer would see more in a distant landscape than we imagine.

Thinking about photographs has prompted me to think about sight. I prefer to take landscape views rather than close up shots. And I think I tend to be better at noticing the grand scale of things rather than what is by my feet. I have certainly felt that my long distance sight has improved since moving out of the town. My horizon now extends for a good 25 miles on a clear day, rather than just across the street. It has made me notice more.

I wonder whether living in towns has encouraged us to develop a different type of vision? So much that we now do is small scale, even driving a car rarely requires us to look far ahead. And, of course, we focus on screens – when I was a child you were told not to sit too close to the television; today we think nothing of working a foot or so away from our computer screens. Our lives require good, close sight.

Those who came across hunter-gatherer groups in the nineteenth century often commented on the amazing long sight of their contacts. It was something noted by Lucas Bridges in his wonderful account of life in Tierra del Fuego at the end of the nineteenth century: The Uttermost Part of the Earth, but he was not alone; I have come across it elsewhere. It is usually described as part of the skills of the hunter, but of course it also serves other purposes: the ability to forsee danger; or the recognition of way markers along an obscure (to us) routeway.

In 2009 a study concluded that men have better distance vision due to their hunter-gatherer past, whereas women are more adept at observing close range, reflecting the skills required of the gatherer (Stancey, H. & Turner, M. 2010). It is not just a matter of vision; it is also to do with how your brain processes space.

I can’t comment on the study, but it is a reminder just how much we have changed, or not, since our hunter-gatherer past. Our circumstances do help to shape the senses we need and the way we are. Over time, I guess, the effect is cumulative. I doubt that many of us (outside the profession of deer stalking) retain the vision to spot an animal at a distance that would allow us to approach it downwind and get close enough to shoot it with bow and arrow. Or even, perhaps, the vision to spot possible prey at closer range. I remember a trip out with a rabbit hunter once and he saw the bunnies long before I had noticed them.

Meanwhile, I do enjoy the way my eyes have (re)adjusted to distance since moving north. Curiously, I find it much more restful to contemplate the broad sweep of landscape rather than the detail. I’d like to think that I’m tuning in to my hunter-gatherer ancestors, but I suspect it is something more prosaic.

Boundaries and Horizons

Swona
Swona lies between Orkney and the Scottish Mainland, in the Pentland Firth, but is the sea a barrier or a link. Once there was a thriving population here – in recent times it has proved too difficult to maintain modern living standards in places like this.

I ventured over to Caithness last night. The short sea crossing made me think about horizons and boundaries: real and perceived. Can we really separate them?

I was less than 50 miles away from home, but it seemed like another world. I wonder how it was perceived by the Mesolithic communities who made Orkney their home? People ask me whether the inhabitants of Mesolithic Orkney lived here year round. Of course, the short answer is that we don’t know – but that is not very satisfactory; perhaps it is more useful to explore the possibilities.

The first problem is that the Mesolithic lasted for a very, very long time – around 5000 years – and so it is likely that practices changed throughout that period. The second problem is that we don’t know how many people lived here – indeed the population of Orkney is likely to have fluctuated depending on climate, resources, disease, and whim. The third problem is that the Mesolithic community is likely to have been fluid – ‘families’ may not have stuck together all the time, groups may have split from time to time only to come together again after a month, a season, a year, or several years.

I think it is likely that there were resources in Orkney on a year round basis. Fresh water, firewood and driftwood for fuel, food (fish, meat, shellfish, eggs, nuts, seeds, roots and berries) – those who knew how to harvest the land carefully would find what they needed. However, hunter-gatherers do need to move around a territory in order to maintain supplies for future years and, while Orkney provides a nice compact unit, it would not support many people for very long if there were no management of the natural resources.

It is not just a question of management though; it is also a question of perception and understanding. In many ways our home-ranges have diminished as transport has got better. I think twice about crossing Orkney from Kirkwall to go to the cinema club in Stromness and it was just the same when I lived in Edinburgh – we choose school, shops and services within easy reach of where we live. All our basic needs can be fulfilled close to home. Mesolithic communities had a home territory that covered a wider area and they were familiar with all parts of it. They had to be in order to survive. If resources failed in one place, they had to be able to navigate to another and know how to obtain what they needed, even after an absence of several years. So, the Mesolithic home territory had to be large enough to provide for all eventualities, with some flexibility thrown in, to allow for fluctuations in weather and population.

I think it likely that those lived in Orkney also considered the moors and hills of Caithness as familiar, home, ground. It seems very different to us, and the boat-ride emphasises that feeling of dislocation. The way in which we travel today is always somehow sterile – whether by car, ferry or plane, we are often alone and disconnected. Travellers in the past tended to move with, and among, their own people. And, while Caithness is, indeed, very different to Orkney it complements it perfectly. Orkney and Caithness together make a formidable territory. So, I’m not surprised that we are finding increasing evidence for Mesolithic settlement on both sides of the Pentland Firth.

It wasn’t ever an easy crossing, but for those who saw themselves as part of the natural world and treated it with respect, it wasn’t a great obstacle. The boundary today is mental, more than physical and it is somehow strange that communities so near, can, yet, seem so far away. We manage our world so differently to our predecessors eight thousand years ago, but it is not always true to say that our horizons have increased.