Our place in the world

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

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

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

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

Somehow, it comes as a shock to everyone.

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

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

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

Scatter sites: more than meets the eye

Mesolithic Deeside.
This evocative image by Ali Cameron gives a good idea of the joys of fieldwalking. It is all about finding flints, usually in the rain! Mesolithic Deeside members at work fieldwalking the prolific sites along the River Dee in Aberdeenshire.

I’ve been thinking about lithic scatters a lot recently. For the uninitiated a lithic scatter is a collection of stone tools. They tend to be found on the ground surface, usually across the surface of a ploughed field, but they may also occur in other Continue reading Scatter sites: more than meets the eye

Chocolate: not as Relaxing as You Thought

Archaeology works hard to be inclusive.  Participation involves responsibility, but there are always people on hand to advise. Why then has a well-known company apparently chosen to dive in without forethought?

It can’t have been the Spring Publicity campaign that Cadbury planned. On the face of it, the idea: to encourage families into exploring the outdoors and engaging with heritage, was such a good one. How could it all go so horribly wrong?

Not only have they been encouraging illegal behaviour (the ransacking of archaeological sites is covered by legislation in each of the countries of the United Kingdom), it is also irresponsible. I doubt that they would suggest that kids go out and collect birds’ eggs from nests. So why was it deemed acceptable to Continue reading Chocolate: not as Relaxing as You Thought

Planning problems

The island of Rum
The island of Rum off the west coast of Scotland, from the coast of Morar. Much of my work in the 1980s took place here, all funded by Historic Buildings and Monuments (Scottish Development Department). It was a happy time.

Autumn is the time when you start to think about your plans for the forthcoming year. Many of us have become accustomed to putting together research projects and considering the finance applications that we will need to make in order to run them. I’ve been very lucky, for much of my career I have been able to work Continue reading Planning problems

The limitations of modelling

This low resolution model of Orkney is good for giving a general idea of landscape change towards the end of the Mesolithic, but it does not tell you what the coast looked like in specific places. The models below, however, give an idea of the level of detail that can be reconstructed with more detailed analysis.

 

The submerged landscape touches us all, wherever we work. We need to bring a basic understanding of the original lie of the land to our site analyses. However, therein lies a problem. In many places, current understanding of the past position of the Continue reading The limitations of modelling

New Book: Landscape Beneath the Waves

Book
Such a feeling of relief – to actually have the first copy of your new book in your hands!

Yesterday I finally received a copy of my new book from the publisher. It is always a process that brings out mixed emotions. Partly I am so fed up with going through the text and illustrations that I can barely bring myself to open it. Partly, Continue reading New Book: Landscape Beneath the Waves

Relaxation

Michael Sharpe’s wonderful photograph of the gaming board may be seen on many websites.

Recent reports of the finding of a gaming board during excavation as part of a project to investigate the location of the Monastery of Deer in north-east Scotland, home to the religious community who inscribed the Book of Deer in the tenth century, are exciting. The Book of Deer is a significant artefact, a relic from Continue reading Relaxation

Flourishing Farmers

Knap of Howar
The Early Neolithic farmstead at Knap of Howar, Papa Westray. Farming seems to have flourished in Orkney, perhaps against the odds. Photo: Guille Lopez

The development of farming in Neolithic Orkney is a fascinating topic that has inspired research over the last century. From the days of Gordon Childe, through the work of Colin Renfrew to the publications of Anna and Graham Ritchie and Continue reading Flourishing Farmers

The Output of Excavation

The reconstructed broch and surrounding buildings at Old Scatness in Shetland provide a fascinating heritage attraction, but upkeep of the centre is financially demanding for those who run it.

There is always great interest in any excavation that takes place in Orkney. There will be coverage on local radio and in the papers, and it is likely that any Open Day will be popular, together with a steady stream of visitors at other times. Continue reading The Output of Excavation