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.

 

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.

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.

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.

The Power of One

north sea flint
Illustration of the North Sea flint by Alan Braby. Can we really postulate the population of an extensive landmass on the basis of one, small, artefact?

Publication of the tanged point from Brodgar, Orkney, by Torben Bjarke Ballin and Hein Bjartmann Bjerck in the Journal of Lithic Studies has made me ponder on our attitude to isolated finds. The authors suggest that this flint arrowhead adds weight to the body of evidence for Palaeolithic activity in Scotland. To understand the significance of this you have to realise that tanged points occupy a semi mythological status in Scotland, adding apparent weight to elusive evidence for the earliest human activity in the country.

This particular piece was originally published (with two others from separate sites) as Palaeolithic by Livens in 1956, but as it was subsequently lost it has been impossible to investigate his claims. Recently, however, it has been rediscovered, mis-catalogued, in the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow (have a look at it here).

When I studied archaeology, the idea that Scotland had an antiquity that stretched back to the Mesolithic was considered doubtful for the north – to suggest even older occupation during the Palaeolithic was truly daring. I’m happy to say that we now have a respectable number of tanged points from various sites across Scotland, and, though none comes with an associated in-situ assemblage, there is increasing evidence for activity during the Palaeolithic, including the on-going excavation by Steven Mithen and Karen Wicks of an Ahrensburgian type assemblage at Rubha Port an t-Seilich on the west-coast island of Islay.

But, how much evidence is evidence? Single finds, from any other period (and perhaps in any other place) would rarely be considered compelling. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a great fan of the single find – a good part of my archaeological reputation has been built on a single find; one that sits in stately isolation in an even greater landscape than the Brodgar point. In 1986 I co-authored publication of a small and insignificant scraper that has since become known as ‘the North Sea Flint’. It was found below some 134m of sea water in the upper sediments of a core recovered during oil prospection roughly half way between Shetland and Norway. At first we toyed with the idea that this represented some prehistoric tragedy as a lone fisherman was swept out to sea and drowned. Or perhaps it had been lost from the hand of a Victorian collector, proudly displaying it to friends on board a North Sea steamer. Soon we realized that the location from which it had been retrieved would have been dry land and available for settlement towards the end of the last great Ice Age. So, we postulated the early population of a whole land mass (later to be named Doggerland by Bryony Coles) on the basis of a single flint. There were, at the time, no other finds from the northern part of Doggerland and though in recent years there is increasing evidence from the southern North Sea, the northern section is still, largely, unexplored.

core with North Sea flint
Core from the northern North Sea with the flint scraper showing clearly in the sandy deposits to the left

There are many reasons why archaeological evidence might be thin on the ground for the Upper Palaeolithic in Scotland. Population density was small and communities were highly mobile. Some sites may have been short lived; some may not have resulted in the deposition of artefactual material. Much of what we know about the communities elsewhere in north west Europe suggests that people were at home on the plains, following and hunting herds such as reindeer. Scotland, with its mountainous terrain was right at the edge of the territory in which they were most comfortable. And, of course, it was a long, long time ago: sites have been affected by a multitude of geomorphological and taphonomic processes since then which will have worked to dismantle the evidence.

So, perhaps we should congratulate ourselves on the way in which our archaeological skills have been honed to the extent that we can recognise and recover any evidence at all, patchy though it is. But I’m not sure about this. There is a good Palaeolithic record from England and Wales and I don’t think archaeologists there make excuses for a paucity of sites. No one nowadays doubts that groups of Upper Palaeolithic hunters did roam across Scotland (or I don’t think they do). So, what is going on? Perhaps we should start by looking at the way in which we undertake our Palaeolithic investigation. Or rather, perhaps we should consider the way in which we don’t do it. ScARF highlighted the problems with finding and managing sites that comprise mainly stone tools and they were focussing on the Mesolithic. I don’t think we have come to terms at all with the possibility that there might actually be a Palaeolithic record here.

Until we do we shall continue to idolize the power of one, by creating a Palaeolithic that is truly ‘join-the-dots’ archaeology as we try to (re)create whole landscape(s), with chronological and geographical depth, out of isolated finds and occasional serendipitous scatters of broken and abandoned flints.

 

The Challenge of Stonehenge

Stonehenge in low winter light, December 2004
Stonehenge never loses its ability to inspire wonder and mystery. I suspect this is something we have in common with our ancestors who built it.

Was anyone else challenged by watching BBC Four romp through the interpretation of Stonehenge through the ages for Timewatch last night? It wasn’t the content – I loved that, there was some great archive footage and it was very interesting to summarize how we have looked at Stonehenge over the last seventy years. What got me was the way in which Stonehenge emerged as a powerful symbol of patriarchy.

I’m not talking prehistory here (well, maybe just a little bit). I’m talking archaeology. Thank goodness the programme was presented by Alice Roberts (I wonder if that was a deliberate decision). Other than that, apart from the work done by Jacqueline McKinley, all of those interviewed or shown in the old footage were men. I did not even try to count them.

This is not the fault of those making the programme. They can only work with the material available. But it is a problem for archaeology. You might think that it is just a sad reflection of our profession in the past, and that things are better now. But I am afraid that is not the case because the Beeb could apparently only find men to comment on the work. Now, I know that all three commentators were people who have been actively engaged with research at Stonehenge in recent years. Indeed, two of them appeared in the earlier footage. But is it true to say that women have nothing to contribute to the Stonehenge debate today?

I wonder if the problem is a little wider than this? Where are the Mary Beards of British Archaeology? We need women with gravitas who can communicate, but what is gravitas? Well, off the cuff, lets assume that in order to have it you need an academic post (two of last night’s commentators were cited as in academia, the other was in popular publishing). I’ve just had a quick look at the staff pages of the four universities in Scotland that have archaeology departments. It is difficult to be certain because each lists staff in different ways, but it looks as if there are a total of 57 academic staff, of whom 23 are women and 34 are men. In order to assess whether or not they have ‘gravitas’ I then tried to investigate the standing of their post. Again it is difficult, but it looks as if there are 18 posts across Scotland at senior lecturer or above, and of these 3 are held by women and 15 by men (interestingly that means that at lower grades 20 are women and 19 are men).

Of course it might just be that women don’t do research on Stone Circles? I’m not going to get into that debate here, though I have a feeling that women are as interested in broadscale Neolithic topics as men are? I had a quick look at Colin Richards’ book Building the Great Stone Circles of the North: he lists 27 co-authors, of whom 18 are men and 9 are women.

I’m not sure where this leaves us. But I’m sad that archaeology can still come over as such a male dominated profession. In fact, thinking of people like Kathleen Kenyon and Isobel Smith, I’m sad that archaeology has ever come over as a male dominated profession. Perhaps men just get to excavate higher status sites?  Perhaps we listen more seriously to what men say? Perhaps women measure achievement in different ways? Perhaps women leave academia to move into other posts? Popular communication is a vital part of archaeology in the twenty-first century, though. So it would be good to break that barrier with more than a handful of women.

While I’m moaning – I’ve another gripe about the programme: where was the footage of Foamhenge? Channel Five’s full size polystyrene replica of Stonehenge lingers in my memory for the way in which seeing all the stones upright, as if functioning as a single entity, made me think in different ways about the monument. Of course, last night’s programme was only drawing on BBC archives; my fantasy now is for a programme that uses all the material, whatever the channel, and incorporates a greater diversity of voices in the twenty-first century commentary on past interpretations.

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!

Learning to expect the unexpected

Fishing in Lapland
Many taboos relate to diet

I’ve been reminded several times this week about the power of taboos. They are an interesting feature of human society, always unexpected, often seemingly unprovoked, they can act as powerful agents to change human behaviour. It is all too easy to forget them archaeologically and inhabit some sort of Binfordian Utopia, but we need to pay them heed because they can make people do unexpected things (or not do expected things).

Archaeology relies on the predictable nature of human behaviour. Otherwise we’d never be able to interpret anything. Even the wackiest of our theories has to have been sparked by something, somewhere, that we then apply to the evidence in front of us. And yet the very nature of any taboo means that is unlikely to be exactly replicated elsewhere. So, the conundrum is, how to recognise and interpret a taboo in the past. Three things have got me thinking this week.

The first was an excellent lecture given by Dr Jen Harland of the UHI Archaeology Institute on the consumption of fish in Orkney in the historical period. She presented evidence for the decline in deep water fishing of species such as cod and the rise in consumption of smaller species, and this led to some interesting discussion. Why would people apparently give up on a good food resource? Jen’s research is on going.

It got me thinking. Some of the evidence is similar to that which we see in prehistory, when Neolithic communities apparently eschew marine protein for terrestrial resources. I’ve always seen this as a simple case of the novel allure of burgers and their convenience over fish fingers, but perhaps it went a bit deeper than that. What if there was some sort of taboo relating to the sea in the Neolithic? This is an idea I need to explore.

Finally my colleague Ann Clarke reminded me to consider the power of taboo in my considerations of Doggerland. It is easy to assume that when a community is put under stress they will always follow the easiest path to survival. But does that always happen? What if they have some sort of cultural or social prohibition relating to the course of action that seems most sensible? I’m not sure how we might recognise that in our work on Doggerland, but it is something that we need to factor in.

I guess we all have taboos. They can be hard to break. Sometimes we don’t even recognize them. I’m sure our prehistoric forebears were just the same.