Neanderthals on TV

programme clip
Neanderthals: Meet Your ancestors, clip from the BBC Two series page.

I have much enjoyed a couple of programmes on television recently: Neanderthals – Meet Your Ancestors. Presented by a new name (to me at least), Ella Al-Shamahi, the series gets over some serious concepts and is a good example of the way in which it is possible to use modern technology (and expectations) to put forward detailed points without dumbing down. Continue reading Neanderthals on TV

Persistent Places

St Magnus cathedral
St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall is undoubtedly important, but not necessarily the deciding factor when people come to live here.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of persistent places. That is the idea that a place may be occupied for centuries, even longer, on the basis that it is special. A sacred site, for example, may continue to be visited or occupied long after the original activity, and perhaps meaning, has ceased. A landscape may have particular significance that lingers in local consciousness and makes it special and thus attractive to the community.

We often see activity in a location well beyond the lifespan of the original structure or event. Brochs, for example, frequently have surrounding settlements that continue in use well after the original broch tower has fallen into disrepair and in some cases the structure itself may be dismantled and even rebuilt to conform to new requirements. But I think we need to be careful of over ritualising the landscapes and activities concerned.

My town, Kirkwall, has, for example, been settled at least since the time of the Norse. The church of St Olaf, was built about 1035 between the Papdale Burn and the sea. Some have argued that there was a Christian community here before that, and archaeological investigation records activity going back, at least, to the Bronze Age. Today, we have a well-loved cathedral and Kirkwall is certainly a significant religious and political centre for the inhabitants of Orkney. Almost half of us choose to live here.

But I am not sure that we live here for the same reasons as the prehistoric inhabitants of the area. And, though the cathedral is important, I suspect that its presence was not the deciding factor for many of the present population. Kirkwall has many conveniences: local shops and supermarkets, restaurants, library, cinema, sports and leisure centre, hospital and so on. In other words, we, ourselves, have created the factors that make this a persistent place.

It is a difficult conundrum to puzzle out the origin of the elements that make somewhere special. And of course, they are likely to change over time, just as lives have changed over time. I find it pretty amazing to consider that I look out over the same bay that has been appreciated by the population of Kirkwall for around 1000 years and, of course, the basic requirements that are met by the area have, in some ways, stayed the same: food; transport; relaxation; companionship; and spiritual life. But this is due as much to the work of the generations who have lived here down the centuries as it is to any intrinsic qualities of the area.

Yes, of course, there are sacred sites that remain sacred. There are sacred sites that remain significant, if changed in use (Stonehenge). There are significant sites that remain popular. But, in most places, it is the combination of people and nature that serves to produce the persistent place. Not simply the location.

It is a good example of the deep entanglement between people and nature.

 

 

 

The hunter-gatherer past?

filming
Television has become an intrinsic part of twenty-first century life. How much does it direct our actions?

A new television series, ‘My year with the tribe’, has already received mixed reviews for twenty-first century voyeurism and the staunch way in which our hero, Will Millard, pushes on with his plans to film an ‘untouched’ tribe, despite early indications that the activities of previous television teams and wealthy Continue reading The hunter-gatherer past?

Is fiction really fiction?

Fiction
There is nothing like a good book: some of the novels that have been published about Skara Brae

I’ve been working on a paper about the benefits to the archaeologist of exploring fiction. It is a hotly debated topic just now. Afficionados of the Netflix series ‘The Crown’ might have come across Hugo Vickers fascinating breakdown of the accuracy of the series. Readers of The Guardian, may have read Simon Jenkins’ Continue reading Is fiction really fiction?

New Publication

Just to flag up a new paper that I have been working on with colleagues which has recently been published. It is in an expensive volume (apologies), the first of three. It is a series which will be useful, so persuade your university to get the books for the library. I note that all are available as ebooks, though the price is the same! This work was undertaken while I held a personal fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust – my thanks must go to them for enabling the research!

Wickham-Jones, C. R., Bates, R., Dawson, S., Dawson, A. and Bates, M. 2018. The Changing Landscape of Prehistoric Orkney. In Persson, P., Reide, F., Skar, B., Breivik, H. M. and Jonsson, L. (eds.) The Ecology of Early Settlement in Northern Europe. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing, 393 – 414.

The value of past studies

The shell midden at Caisteal nan Gillean in Argyll has been published many times. Each publication builds on the work of the last.

I’ve been considering the way in which our understanding of archaeology changes over time. New techniques of analysis, the application of new theories and the discovery of new data constantly refine our interpretation of the past. Continue reading The value of past studies

The challenging of preconceptions

CorporatePortal

Reconstruction of the face of Cheddar Man: Channel 4.

One of the reasons I love archaeology is the way in which it challenges us to recognise and rethink our preconceptions. It is very easy to live in the cosy world of today and focus on reassuring feelings of stability. Practices of mindfulness, among others, encourage us to ‘live for the moment’ and, amidst the insecurites of the present, this is not something with which I would wish to disagree. Continue reading The challenging of preconceptions

Introspection

Maeshowe
An early view of Maeshowe, published by James Farrer in 1862. How much does our archaeological understanding advance year by year?.

I wonder, as we move into February, where all the archaeology we do is taking us. I’m not qualified to take a global, or even national view. But it is not a bad idea to undertake a little personal reflection. How has ‘my’ archaeology grown in the past year or so? Has it grown at all? Being an archaeologist is fun, and I Continue reading Introspection

Storytelling and Archaeology

I participated recently in a storytelling event organised by a project known as ‘Orkney Beside the Ocean of Time‘. They seek to investigate the relationships between the people of Orkney, Deep Time, and landscape change. For the event they invited half a dozen Orkney archaeologists to gather together and share a Continue reading Storytelling and Archaeology