The Travel Bug

Farm museum
Orkney provides a range of experience for the visitor, the farm museum here, at Kirbuster, is a nice contrast to the prehistoric remains.

I’ve been working with a well-established travel company who want to develop a tour of Orkney for their guests. It is a fun thing to do, but it is more complex than you might think. To be honest, once the tour is up and running, being a guide-lecturer is pretty much of a doddle. You are paid to visit first-rate sites with Continue reading The Travel Bug

Searching for the Scottish Late Upper Palaeolithic

Intrigued by the emerging evidence for Late Upper Palaeolithic activity in Scotland, Torben Bjarke Ballin and I have put together a short paper which was published earlier this week in the Journal of Lithic Studies. We are particularly Continue reading Searching for the Scottish Late Upper Palaeolithic

The tradition of invention

tree stumps
Tree stumps in the inter-tidal zone, such as these at the Sands of Wright in Orkney, bear witness to a time when the landscape was very different. A landscape experienced by our prehistoric ancestors and, perhaps, memorialized in ancient stories.

Wherever I turn just now I seem to be collecting examples of the way in which stories, once considered mere fairy tales and myths, may contain an element of description of the past. In some ways, it seems obvious. We use narrative to explain the world around us – today we have several names for these narratives: ‘text books’; ‘academic papers’; ‘theses’, among others. For a long time, we have accepted that there is a second form of narrative, today we call it ‘fiction’, and we regard it very differently; more specifically we assign some of it to a category that encompasses nothing more than imaginative leisure. Fairy tales; mythology; legend: call it what you will, this type of story needs no rooting in reality. In this way, we consider it different to the world of novelistic fiction that we all read for relaxation. Novels are, usually, bounded by the rules of the world; when they are not we assign them special status: science fiction, magic realism and so on. Even these names, however, hint at the way in which it is hard for the writers to move beyond the world they know and love.

Fairy tales are often different. Strange things happen and it can be hard to identify with the settings, actions, and motives of the protagonists. It is sometimes difficult to imagine the minds that conjured up such outlandish ideas. One thing we are usually agreed upon is that these stories are old. They have been around, apparently, since the mists of time and, no doubt, their weirdness is due in part to the way they have been embellished with telling. How many parents have hushed their children with a bedtime fable, or admonished them with an awful story?

And yet, perhaps we should not be surprised that research around the world is identifying increasing examples where the apparently bizarre domain of an ancient story conceals an element of description that seems to be rooted in reality. These stories often relate to a time when the world was a little different, they often tell us about changes that took place in the landscape. They are being collected from Australia to the Americas and locations in between. In Africa and India there are accounts of the submergence beneath the waves of ancient temples and cities. In Atlantic Canada the Mi’kmaq tell of the tensions between Glooscap (a local hero), Beaver, and Whale which led to the breaching of the inner bay of the Minas Basin and infiltration of the tides from the Bay of Fundy. There are many stories from the coastal peoples of Australia, some surprisingly similar: the Aboriginal inhabitants of the Wellesley Islands recount that you could walk out to their island home before the inundation of the sea which was due to the actions of Garnguur, ‘the seagull woman’.

Nearer to home, the land of Cantre’r Gwaelod is said to have extended westwards from the present coastlands of Wales, in the area of Cardigan Bay, and many stories and poems tell of its loss. In my home archipelago of Orkney, the Bay of Otterswick in the island of Sanday was reputedly once home to a great forest, a fact recently confirmed by fieldwork which uncovered the remains of trees subsequently dated to c. 6,500 years ago.

These stories fascinate me because they were originally recounted by people for whom the configuration of the world was truly different. In many cases, it seems they saw strange and scary events and needed to explain them. The tales give voice to the people of the past in a way that archaeology is only just beginning to understand. Of course they have changed in the telling: often exaggerated, bent, augmented and tweaked, we can’t use them as a direct retelling of the past. But, the ultimate irony of archaeology is that, while we seek to learn about people, we have to achieve it through the study of inanimate objects. People, the essence of humanity, lie a long way from the sherds of pottery, stone flakes and soil discolorations that we enthuse over. And yet, strangely, in the current application of geoscience research to the investigation of oral histories, a small sense of the colour and depth of life in the past is beginning to break through.

The Invisibility of Women

cwj knapping
Women flintknappers – breaking the gender barriers of prehistory? Or just a modern misconception – maybe the gender barrier was never there? Maybe it varied from place to place? Can we tell?

A recent paper in The Conversation, a news platform based on academic writing and research, asks ‘Where were all the women in the Stone Age?’.

It is a good question and the author is to be credited for posing it. Unfortunately, the ensuing text is full of contradiction and occasional bias. Nevertheless, it is a topic that should, perhaps, be required thinking for all of us who work in prehistory at least once a year. To approach it, we need to go back to the basics.

Continue reading The Invisibility of Women

Guardian Newspaper helps archaeology to reach the parts that other papers ignore

Neolithic houses
Reconstructed Neolithic houses at Stonehenge. Archaeology is as much about everyday, mundane elements of life as it is about the showy and the monumental

The Guardian Newspaper is starting an archaeology and anthropology blog: Past and Curious. It is a great step forward for a newspaper which has always (to my mind) had a good reputation for measured, well-researched archaeology. It should be interesting. I’m hoping it is going to tell us more about the ways in which the past impacts on ordinary everyday lives, today and in the past, here and elsewhere, rather than about ‘tombs, treasures, tribes, and high adventure’, though. This is just because one of my bugbears is the way in which we reduce everything archaeological to hyperbole. To be fair they do suggest that they will be aiming to get behind the scenes and into the nooks and crannies of our work. Perhaps I’m also jealous that archaeological adventurer was not a career path when I graduated, and these guys seem to be taking full advantage of the possibilities that suggests. But then, if I reflect, I’d have to say that I’ve had my fair share of adventures: digging on the Lebanese border with Israel in the 1970s; trying out stone age technology in Lapland in the 1980s; working in the arctic; and in the far south.

It is certainly true that archaeology impacts on everyone, everywhere, in every field of life. So, I look forward to reading their blogs and seeing how they settle in. It is a great step forward, towards the infiltration of archaeology into all aspects of the twenty-first century.

Still Ranting About Dating!

Kinloch, Rum excavations
Excavation taking place at Kinloch, Rum in 1986. This was our third season of excavation and we understood that the site was Mesolithic by then. At the time it overturned conventional wisdom about the early settlement of the north of Scotland – it proved to be quite a heavy burden!

Still ranting!

Bayesian dating is a new, and useful tool in the archaeological box of tricks. And like any new toy – we are keen to make use of it. But, it is a specialised piece of kit and we need to be careful that we know exactly what we are doing. I’m amazed by the number of times people say: ‘but why did you not use Bayesian dating’. In most cases the answer would be that it is not appropriate for poorly contexted samples on a site with shallow stratification. But I’m too polite to say that. Too many archaeologists seem to consider Bayesian dating as a simple means of getting more accurate dates.

Even when undertaking the old-fashioned application of radiocarbon assay it was necessary to remember to constrain our data carefully so that we understood the context of the sample we were dating and therefore exactly what the date might relate to. Is the pit-fill contemporary with the digging of the pit? Is the deposit on a house-floor related to the use of the house, or is it some sort of dumping after the house had gone out of use? Is the wood heartwood from an aged tree? Has the wood (or bone for that matter) been curated over a period of years? So many things to take into account.

However we use radiocarbon assay, and whatever method we use, we should never use it unquestioningly.

I know I come over as obsessed with all of this. But I learnt of the dangers of type-fossils and pre-conceived ideas early on in my career as an archaeologist.

When I studied archaeology we were taught that there was no Mesolithic occupation to speak of in highland Scotland. Not long after graduating I had the opportunity to excavate a nice lithic scatter on the island of Rum. The site was defined by the occurrence of a barbed and tanged arrowhead among the lithics, so we drew up a research design to excavate a site that was, clearly (according to the type fossil), Bronze Age. As we sieved our test pits and sorted the residue a lot of flaked stone occurred. It included a lot of small pieces with tiny retouch – microliths. But I knew they should not be there because microliths were Mesolithic and did not occur in the Bronze Age. And I had learnt at university not to expect Mesolithic occupation that far north. Even when I filled in the radiocarbon forms to send our precious carbon samples off for assay I noted that the predicted date range lay within Bronze Age parameters. I remember that well.

Imagine my surprise therefore when the dates came back: a nice little sequence around 8500 years ago. This was long before the Bronze Age. Indeed, it sat within the Mesolithic but was early even for Mesolithic Scotland and unknown that far north. I can remember thinking that if I didn’t know there was no Mesolithic in the area I’d think the site was Mesolithic. Of course, the penny eventually dropped, we continued to excavate a fabulous Mesolithic site (you can read the report for free here), and many other people have since examined other Mesolithic sites around there and even to the north.

But I had another surprise. I thought that my archaeological colleagues would be interested (even pleased) in my findings and so I phoned and wrote to people to tell them about the site and the dates. Curiously, people were divided: some wrote back with hearty congratulations; others were more cautious, telling me that I must have contaminated the samples, that it was just not possible for Mesolithic hunters to have penetrated that for north by that date, and so on. It was, I discovered, hard for some people to give up their fixed ideas of the order of things.

Change is always difficult, but I think we need to be cautious of thinking that we have worked out everything there is to know about the past. We need to be open to new interpretations and ready to rewrite our narratives. We need to remember that it is rarely the type fossils that are wrong, but rather our understanding.

So, the moral of my story is – to keep an open mind. To be open to the unexpected. And to be careful not to set the past into stone. The frameworks that we build to understand the people of the past need constant tweaking. That is what keeps us on our toes. That is what keeps it interesting.

And this is my last post on dating for a while – I promise!