Remote Archaeology

Archaeology is not only about the joys of digging outside, in the rain! There is a lot more to it. Excavation in progress on the Mesolithic site at Kinloch, Rum, in the 1980s.

My introduction to archaeology was very much through the joy of being out of doors. Exploration, hard work – often in bad weather, fellowship and friendship. Some of the people I met on digs in the 1970s are still friends today. It was Continue reading Remote Archaeology

Using your voice

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

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

Lockdown Archaeology

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

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

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

Lost voices

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

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

Pandemic Phenomenology

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

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

The coronavirus outbreak has got me thinking about phenomenology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archaeology as Muse

I love a good book, and I love writing, but I could not write fiction! Thanks to Pete Stokes for this photo.

Archaeology is important to me. I just love it when it permeates everyday culture. It is a justification in my mind of its significance as an artefact, itself contributing to the way we live now. Continue reading Archaeology as Muse

Destroy the past – at your peril

The Emin Minaret, Turfan, China. Heritage sites do not have to relate to our own society in order to be meaningful.

There has been a bit of discussion about the morality of destroying heritage sites. Whether as an act of repercussion in war, or the lead up to war, or as a way of simplifying the present, it has shocked me that it might be something for consideration. Continue reading Destroy the past – at your peril

Excavating the Mesolithic

Excavation in progress on the Mesolithic site at Kinloch, Rum, in the 1980s. The site was preserved under a thin skim of ploughsoil, as it is cleaned back it is possible to see the darker colours of the fills in Mesolihtic pits and hollows beginning to show up.

Mesolithic sites rarely make glamorous excavations. All too often they seem to comprise a corner of a muddy field where there is little to be seen except for a strange pattern of discolourations in the subsoil, and possibly some accumulations of broken stone. I spent much of my early career crouching down Continue reading Excavating the Mesolithic