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!

Talking about uncomfortable things

orkney sunrise
The past might be nasty, brutish and short, but let’s try to keep a rosy view in our dealings with one another.

I feel very uncomfortable about accusations of the political use of archaeology. My overwhelming instinct is to stick my head in the sand and avoid discussing or confronting them. I don’t want to stir things up and I don’t want to upset or offend people. But, I’m going to consider it just now because I feel that these are weird times in which we live, and sometimes we must address uncomfortable matters.

Archaeology is inherently political, if nothing else because we are trying to investigate past human communities and people are always, in one way or another, political. But it is one thing to recognise political content and quite another to use that content to make political statements that relate to different (usually modern) times. I don’t like it when people try to bend archaeological interpretation and use it as a window on to present politics. It has been done, and it usually ends in tears.

There has been some discussion in the press and social media about the possible use of the Secrets of Orkney television series to promote a unionist agenda of British politics (see Kenny Brophy’s article as a good starting point). I’m worried by this. Having commented on the representation of Neolithic Britain as a period wherein the expression of some elements of life were shared as material culture across these islands, it has been said that it would have been more representative to celebrate the diversity of Neolithic Britain and the uniqueness of Neolithic Orkney. I wonder if that could be construed as serving the opposite agenda? And are not both views valid?

Surely, as archaeologists we have a duty to present the past in whatever way we each, individually, see it – with the caveat that we need to try to stop our views of the world today from intruding too deeply on our ideas of the world of the past. I realise, of course, that we are all coloured by our beliefs, whether they relate to religion, the current political situation, acceptable foods, the role of music, whatever. But if we allow for a plurality of interpretation then, hopefully, the end result will be ideas that are more balanced across a range of possibilities. We can perhaps even encourage people to critique the archaeological narrative for themselves. It might not be possible to produce an alternative television series for every viewpoint, but it is, surely, possible to make use of other media: books; blogs; newspaper and magazines. It doesn’t do any harm to show the processes of academic debate, and we don’t have to be rude, or confrontational, while we are doing so (let’s save that for in-house conferences and the pub).

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I’ve touched on it before, but I don’t believe that there is any correct answer regarding the interpretation of the material that we excavate. As professional archaeologists, we learn to work within academic boundaries, but I can’t tell you what happened in the Mesolithic any more than I can explain the extinction of the dinosaurs. And, as you know, I don’t believe that my word is any more valid than that of the carefully researched artist, TV company, or cartoonist. Does this make me a ‘post-truth’ archaeologist? I fear that it might; though, I’d argue that the application of professionally acceptable boundaries to my thoughts lifts them well above some of the reinterpretations of history that we have seen. It is a slightly different application of the phrase. I’m post-truth in the sense that, while I believe that the facts/data in archaeology are immutable, I also believe that there are different ways to interpret them.

Returning to the Neolithic of Orkney and Britain. The gaps in the evidence are such that it is possible to build narratives that address many different views. I was involved in an advisory capacity with the production of the Secrets series, and so I am, of course, biased. I understood it to be focussed primarily on the Neolithic of Orkney, but, given the lack of popular information relating to the Neolithic, I thought I could understand the need to use Stonehenge as an anchor. The idea that the development of material culture in Orkney pre-dates that further south is hardly new – it has been well covered from the National Geographic Magazine to academic papers. Whether I like it or not, most of the television audience will be more familiar with Stonehenge than Skara Brae. I thought the challenge to contemporary ideas of remoteness worked quite well to get people thinking about a time when the social geography of Britain was not as we know it. For those reasons, the focus on Orkney and Stonehenge did not worry me.

It would, of course, be nice to produce a series that covered the details of Neolithic life in all their glory and diversity, right around the UK. It would be a lengthy series, and it would be expensive, but if someone would like to commission it then do get in touch. We could have fun putting it together. We could, perhaps, ask teams from different places to curate the scene from their locales, so that we are also looking at some of the different viewpoints that affect our ideas of the past. Would we hold our audience? I don’t know and that is why I suspect that us academics are better to leave specialist subjects such as television to the professionals. Nevertheless, we do have a duty to push for increasing public access to our musings, and so I look forward to the material that will, no doubt, be spawned by reaction to the Orkney programmes.

I know that I would be naive not to recognise that archaeology will, on occasion, be used as the handmaiden of politics. There is so much scope that I’m amazed that it does not happen more often. As archaeologists, we are keen to illustrate the ways in which our profession can be of use to the present. But, I’d feel more comfortable if it were possible to be less confrontational. If there is one lesson I’d promote (thereby negating the whole of my argument above), it is that there is, in these north-western islands off the coast of Europe, plenty of room for diversities of view.

Ranting About Dating

Narrow blade microliths. They might not look like much but these little stone tools were like the penknife blades of prehistory – they could be used for many different tasks and were easily replaced if they broke or blunted. They were important for the Mesolithic communities in Scotland about 9000 years ago, and they are important for archaeologists because they direct us to the rough age of the site we are excavating.

One of my bug bears in 2016 came to be the way in which archaeologists use artefacts as archaeological type fossils. So, I am going to allow myself a little rant.

In order to understand the past, we need order. For this, we have constructed a framework into which we place different stages of human activity. So, we go from Mesolithic, to Neolithic to Bronze Age and so on. We have three ways by which we can identify where any one site sits on the chain of events.

  • We make use of fashion: the use of type fossils
  • We undertake radiocarbon and other forms of dating
  • We examine the economic basis of life –not all aspects of the chain of events are sequential, so it can be helpful to investigate the use of farming as opposed to hunting and gathering, or the possible access to metal and other technologies.

But, these techniques each have their complications, and they don’t always agree with one another. For that reason, we tend to try to use more than one aspect of a site in order to assess how it relates to other sites and the ‘grand order of things’ that were taking place in that region at the time.

Type fossils are identified when a particular (usually notable) artefact recurs frequently enough for us to be able to judge it a preferred choice among members of a specific community. We are very aware today that people have preferred ways of doing things and that this tends to be a personal choice that is influenced by culture. Fashions in clothing provide one obvious example, though they change very frequently. Other examples range from the flashy, such as cars, to more subtle things, like the ways we decorate our houses. The goods we use, our material culture, help to define us and the groups with which we identify.

The same holds good for the people of the past. Of course, clothing rarely survives, so it is hard to pick out trends there, but we do have other things such as arrowheads and pottery, even styles of flint knapping.

Over the years, archaeologists have built up ‘pattern books’ of type fossils and they look out for them on sites in order to identify the period (and sometimes type) of site that they are investigating.

Sometimes, this can have unintended consequences. For example, when I was planning excavations I tended to look for a specific type of stone tool known as a ‘narrow blade microlith’ in order to identify a site as Mesolithic. When I found narrow blade microliths in a collection of stone tools from field walking I could be pretty certain that the site related to the period in which I was interested for my research. Now, the Mesolithic is a long period, in Scotland it lasted for roughly 5,000 years before the introduction of farming about 6000 years ago. So, I was surprised to find that all the sites I excavated turned out to have very similar dates: Kinloch, Rum – c. 8500 BP; Fife Ness – c. 8500 BP; Long Howe, Orkney –  7900 BP. Thinking of an explanation, I suspect that I must be biasing my choice of sites somehow, and the most likely way is that the specific microliths that I perceive as interesting conform to the type of microliths that were popular around that precise part of the Mesolithic in Scotland. There are other dates from sites with microliths like that that would seem to confirm this – though the picture is, of course, not simple.

It is important to remember that type fossils are a tool that speaks to us, rather than one that we should force to fit in. We need to look at our finds and think carefully about what they might mean. I’ve been surprised recently to find people complaining that the type fossils don’t fit the accepted archaeological pattern; they then try to make them conform to their preconceptions. What they are forgetting is that archaeology grows as we excavate more sites and get more information. Our narratives change. We need to remember this and be prepared to be flexible and think our way around new interpretations, new stories. That is one of the attractions of the discipline for me.

For example, we don’t tend to find those narrow blade microliths on many sites towards the end of the Mesolithic. Some archaeologists, considering that a site can only be Mesolithic if they occur, have asked me whether I think that this could mean the abandonment of parts of Scotland in the millennium preceding the introduction of farming. Of course, it might, but we would have to find some explanation for this. Personally, I think it more likely that, due to a change in technology, we have not been able to identify the everyday culture in use right at the end of the Mesolithic. I suspect that microliths become less common and people are using stone tools that just don’t stand out – there are many sites with nondescript stone tools that we have not been able to fit into any pattern, and I wonder if they date to this period. Their locations conform to Mesolithic find spots, but as we don’t tend to excavate ‘nondescript’ sites we have yet to find out.

Another example relates to finds of Grooved Ware style pottery across the UK. In the past, we have tended to assume that technological and cultural developments took place first in the south, then spread gradually across the country. So, it came as something of a surprise to find that sites with Grooved Ware in the north, specifically in Orkney, were earlier than those in the south. In this case, it has prompted a closer examination of the evidence with the result that many people are now working on an exciting theory related to the development of a dynamic cultural movement, evidenced by henge sites such as The Stones of Stenness in Orkney as well as finds of the pottery and other things, and its spread away from the islands to form other centres of power such as the Boyne Valley Neolithic and the Stonehenge area of Wessex. Perhaps these places were already significant, but the developments that took place in later Neolithic Britain seem to spring out of the north and turn existing geographical perceptions of remoteness on their head.

The archaeological evidence does not always do what we expect. It is interesting to think about how we make sense of the archaeological material that we find. We were given the tools by generations of archaeologists before us, but they did not expect us to follow them blindly, they expected us to use our nous…





Immersive Archaeology at Stonehenge

Stonehenge in low winter light, December 2004
Stonehenge – any interpretation includes an element of supposition, but we need to think how best to make it come alive.

I heard a nice little piece about immersive archaeology on the radio recently. This comprises a new form of presentation of the past which makes use of gaming technology to reconstruct ancient sites and monuments as they might have appeared when in use. It includes additional atmospheric detail such as noise (or the lack of it in the case of traffic). Apparently, Dr Rupert Till from the University of Huddersfield has recreated the sounds of Stonehenge in a virtual tour that makes use of ancient instruments.

The radio interview noted that this was a controversial development in archaeology, making use, as it does, of supposition rather than fact. We can never know what the sounds of the Stone Age sounded like. They did go on to include a snippet from Aaron Watson, whose work I much admire, and he validated the project; but I felt that there was still an element of doubt and it got me thinking.

Firstly, the implied information that archaeology deals with ‘fact’. In reality, I can’t think of any interpretation in archaeology that is totally factual. We may record a burial – but we don’t know the precise details. Our assessment of the childhood home of the individual (if we make one) will be based on an evaluation of several possible matches for the isotopic detail gleaned from their teeth. Information relating to age will be based on an evaluation of the skeleton; diet, manner of death, burial rites: all similarly related to the evaluative skills of various specialists. We may record a stone circle – it is still impossible to be certain that every stone was in place at the same time, perhaps some had fallen before the last were erected. We record a structure – we interpret its function, even its appearance. We don’t know what it was used for, we guess. We put these elements together into a story in order to construct a human narrative.           There is no such thing as archaeological truth.

Secondly, the nature of the narratives that we construct. If we base them on archaeological remains alone they will be sorry, monochrome, stories indeed. I am constantly amazed by how drab and grey archaeological finds tend to be. Not surprisingly, after several millennia buried in the earth, colour and texture tend to have disappeared. But our lives are not monochrome, and this is as true of the past as it is of today. If we are truly to build a narrative of the past, we have to consider those elements that no longer survive, elements such as sound, colour, sensation such as warmth and light.

To make the archaeological narrative work we have to fill in the gaps between the details we amass from archaeology. The trick is to fill those gaps with detail that is bounded within the realm of probability. Understanding where that realm lies is the job of the archaeologist and colleagues.

So, I say – excellent. I’m all for immersive archaeology. Yes, it leads us into supposition, but that is the nature of archaeology. It may be territory where we need to employ our interpretive skills a bit more openly than we do when working on a conventional archaeological report. But lets not kid ourselves: that report contains just as much doubt as the virtual reality headset or the phone app. As long as we base our scenarios in the available information then it does not matter if the story changes from time to time. We don’t really think that our word on a site is the definitive last word do we? People are always reappraising things in light of new information.

I’m not in archaeology just to talk to myself, or my colleagues (apologies to my colleagues). I’m in archaeology in order to make the past come alive for everyone. And I would be in dereliction of duty if I did not make use of all possible techniques to do this. Including new ones.

Virtual reality, immersive archaeology, soundscapes – bring them on. Hopefully they will soon become an integral part of  the way in which we present the past – whether in museums, out on walks, perhaps even at home. It is so good to see people taking steps towards this.


Runes at Maeshowe
The Norse who carved the runes at Maeshowe were clearly literate. I have a feeling that they would not have been that surprised to know that some of their messages have survived – even if we find it hard to understand exactly what they were wanting to communicate.

It is just over a year since I started writing this blog. I’ve been thinking about why I am still writing.

Actually, it is quite addictive. I love writing, I like crafting language, and I particularly like the way in which the blog allows me to write without rigid boundaries. Of course, there are norms, both social and academic which I try to follow. These include adding links to sites that I might mention and, obviously, crediting and linking to other material. I don’t have to worry about house-styles, specifics of grammar, or content, because I’m not bound by publishers or referees.

It is wonderfully liberating to be able to jot down my thoughts on topics that matter to me. And amazing that anyone likes to read them. It gets me thinking and encourages me to research topics that I might normally gloss over. I enjoy the challenge of trying to craft something sensible and vaguely interesting in a relatively short space. Occasionally someone will comment on something and occasionally the blog has led me down completely new and interesting routes. It has all been fun and I don’t intend to stop. I was surprised by how stressed I got recently when poor broadband restricted my ability to communicate online.

There are so many different ways in which one can communicate. I’m no artist, and definitely not a musician. My contact with fiction writers has taught me that I could never write a novel. I love lecturing, but it is a more limited format. Many years ago I presented a radio programme on local archaeology: that was fun, but it was a lot more work than the blog. I spent a couple of days this summer working with a camera crew for the BBC – that was fun too, but I’m not sure I’m a natural; it is quite stressful trying to say the right thing with the right emphasis, enthusiasm, and facial expression. In academic writing I struggle to use the correct jargon. This is mainly because I hate jargon – if you are trying to communicate with the world, then it just seems lazy not to take the trouble to explain something in a way that everyone can understand. It seems I’m not alone in thinking like this, I have recently discovered the Rounded Globe publishing house which aims to produce freely available, jargon free, scholarly texts. If you have not visited their website – have a look.

I do love writing popular books and articles, but they can be time consuming and you are bound by the strictures of your editor and publishing house.

So, I’m left with the free-style blog.

I’m lucky to live in an era when internet technology not only allows me the means to reproduce my work for free, but also to export it around the world. If I have an overriding theme, it has to be the way in which the world of the past continues to touch on my own life. When I visit the Neolithic sites of Orkney I wonder about those who produced the carefully incised designs that one sees on so many of the stones at sites like Ness of Brodgar. Those who carved them, too, were communicating. Perhaps they loved it just as much as I do. We have long lost the lexicon and the grammar by which to understand their work. Maybe it was only ever intended for a few, maybe it was more general. Those who carved the Viking runes in Maeshowe seem to have thought that they would be understood by many. Those who produced the carefully illustrated Christian gospels knew that they would only be read by a few and that a ‘translator’ would be needed in order for their work to be appreciated by the general populace. I wonder how any of these people would feel were they to know that their communications are now the subject of study so many years later. Time, it seems, is the one element where my predecessors have the advantage of me. Somehow, I feel there is less chance that my ‘wisdom’ will be the subject of such interest in 3016.

The value of conferences

Gammla Uppsala
Sunset over Gammla Uppsala. Some experiences transcend time.

One evening in late summer, I found myself standing with some 200 people in the shadow of the massive Early Historic mounds at Gamla Uppsala in Sweden, watching a group of fire dancers as the sun went down. It was an amazingly evocative experience, not least because we were surely following in the footsteps of generations of others who also gathered at this historic place and enjoyed similar entertainment. My turn came as part of the conference dinner celebrations for the fourth Landscape Archaeology Conference which was held in Uppsala at the end of August. It was, I have to say, the best conference dinner evening I’ve ever been to, and I have been to a few.

Of course there is much more to a conference than the dinner, though the sceptical might note that I start by recalling that evening and only later move on to the meeting itself. I’ve been to three meetings on ‘Landscape Archaeology’ this year and all have been rewarding. All got me thinking.

Attendance at a conference is an expensive business, especially if, like me, you don’t have an employer willing to pay your costs. It also requires you to leave your desk for a few days and put work, more or less, on hold. You have to think carefully before committing yourself, and often you have to make this decision before the final programme has been released. This usually means a spot of last minute soul searching when you glance over the papers and worry that there is really very little that will be of interest to you.

Luckily, I always find that I am wrong. To start with there are the papers that are of relevance. A group of keen academics can turn even the most apparently disparate topics into a unified discussion of surprising significance. These are the ‘comfortable’ sessions based around a theme of obvious applicability. Discussions spill over into coffee and lunch breaks and ambitious plans are made for future collaborations and meetings. But, in a way the especial value for me comes from the papers that I’d not identified as relevant. There are sessions that I attend because I got chatting to someone the previous night, sessions where one paper looks promising, and sessions that just sound whacky. I like to think of these as my ‘uncomfortable’ sessions. All have presentations that get me thinking.

They act as a reminder of just how narrow our academic worlds can become. Of course, we focus on identified research topics, on the fields for which we are funded, or those in which we hold particular expertise. But, it is also important to think outside the box, to expose ourselves to other ways of doing things, and to other data sets and interpretations. When I see how people use their data when investigating other periods, or the constraints that have affected the people of the past in other places, then I begin to think of new ways of looking at prehistoric Scotland.

A good example of the ‘uncomfortable’ from my recent trip includes a discussion of the way in which a landscape of women has been identified by John Kinahan’s work among the hunter-gatherers in the Namib Desert. I’m only too aware that archaeological remains often favour men’s lives, but the idea of distinct yet co-existent landscapes created by women and men is new for me and something that opens exciting new possibilities. In Mesolithic Scotland we don’t have quite the density of sites that exist in Namibia, but it is something to think about.

Another example, this time from a ‘comfortable’ session, comes from Steve Dickinson’s work with Aaron Watson in Cumbria where he has been surveying the ‘natural’ landscape in minute detail and identifying a range of monuments, some completely natural, some partly worked, some totally anthropogenic, that lead towards the axe factories at Great Langdale. This work overturns our carefully defined boxes of ‘Natural’ and ‘Cultural’ into a sliding scale that pushes beyond the work of Bradley or Tilley in recognizing the archaeological value of place. Dickinson classifies it as Incipient Monumentality. He is not the first to use the term; it is explored (among other things) by Chris Scarre and Luc Laporte and their colleagues in a new book, and I’m hoping that we are going to learn more about the phenomenon in Cumbria as well as in other locations. I believe that it helps us to understand the Neolithic relationship to landscape across Britain and I’m looking forward to some future conference to discuss other examples.

Thinking about it, it is obvious that my own presentation has slipped into insignificance in relation to my new ideas. Hopefully I managed to interest others, and it definitely helps to give a paper because it helps people to understand where your own research is going. But really, I go to conferences to identify gaps and to learn, not to validate what I’m already doing.

With this in mind I have to mention that very big conferences don’t work for me. I’ve always fancied attending one because they tend to be prestigious. But I tried it last year and found that really I only mixed with people I already knew. It was a great venue to catch up with work colleagues, but there were so many people there and such varied papers that other contacts were somehow ephemeral. Maybe there is a knack I have yet to learn, but I don’t think I’ll be trying that again. I prefer something more targeted where there is at least one single theme uniting us.

So, the conference season for 2016 is over for me now. There is no money left in the kitty. But I’ve already been told of some promising meetings in the pipeline for 2017. Exciting!

Archaeology and the media

popular archaeology
It is worth getting popular archaeology right: the wonderful Brian Wilkinson enthusing people about the Mesolithic life style.

I’ve always been keen to promote archaeology to a wide audience. As such one can only be happy to see archaeological material being presented in a variety of popular media such as television, books and radio.

How sad, therefore, to hear a popular account of archaeology on Start the Week on Radio Four this week that was very misleading. My problems relate to the description of Britain in 9700 BC and thereabouts: Northern Britain under glaciers; tundra to the south and a landscape devoid of human settlement; Doggerland as a landbridge; the characterisation of the Scottish coast by raised beaches; and, of course, the tsunami that cut us off from the continent. Apart from the tsunami, it all sounded very drab. Of course, it pressed all my buttons for it is a period about which I feel passionately.

Most of my complaints relate to language and I know that makes me pedantic. But we are talking radio here, if language is not important then what is. To say that northern Britain was under glaciers in 9700 BC may be technically correct (though they were diminishing) but these were the re-advancing ice coverage of the Younger Dryas (sometimes known in Scotland as the Loch Lomond Stadial) and are more commonly referred to as ‘small ice caps’, rather than the full blown glacial cover. Similarly, to talk about the coastline of Scotland as characterised by post-glacial raised beaches is a gross over-simplification that owes more to the school books of my childhood than to current research. There are places, like Orkney, where the post-glacial coastline is characterised by the submergence of landscape.

To hear Doggerland described as an isthmus, a landbridge, or a plain always upsets me. The area of Doggerland in the Early Holocene is still based on fairly general models, but even these suggest that it was a considerable landmass. It is likely to have been bigger than several of the smaller European countries today, including England. I don’t think that is an isthmus. Low-lying plains?  I do accept that on a chat show one does not have time to explore the nuances of current archaeological research. But the work on Doggerland is hardly new and shows clearly that it comprised rather more than the undulating landscape I caught in my mind’s eye as I listened. There are many people working on Doggerland and they include artists interested in ‘re-naming’ it as well as geoscientists interested in ‘re-wilding’ it. No one, perhaps, has done more than Vince Gaffney and his team to highlight the glories of Doggerland and its topography: lakes; hills; rivers; marshes, it is all there and now they are working to elucidate the animals and vegetation. Maybe it is just me, but I don’t see Doggerland as a landbridge, I see it as a country. For me Doggerland is exciting, full of promise, and a glimpse to a past where Britain takes its rightful place as a part of Europe.

Britain abandoned: the human occupation of Britain has a long and venerable history going back almost a million years and, yes, there are times when it is thought that people may have been absent. But not in recent times, and for me that includes anything from fifteen thousand years ago. Sites may be few and far between, but they are there. The last ‘Upper Palaeolithic’ hunters based their stone tool assemblages on long blades, and we are beginning to recognise related industries from sites across Britain from north-west Scotland and Orkney to, of course, the south. Scientific dates are still sometimes elusive but, where they are lacking, fairly accurate parallels may be drawn on the basis of dated sites elsewhere and these show good evidence for long-blade based activity in England by 11,500 BC and in Scotland around 11,000 BC. By 9000 BC things are really taking off: there is, for example, evidence of the sophisticated use of the landscape of the Vale of Pickering in Yorkshire with people at sites like Star Carr building houses and platforms and making use of those wonderful deer masks in hunting and other rituals. For me this is an exciting time: small groups are making their way in a rich landscape. Their culture is rich with meaning and possibility, building on a venerable ancestry to make the most of the world they encounter.

The power of the tsunami. Yes, of course, the Storegga Slide and associated tsunami were powerful events, transforming and treacherous for those who got in their path. But, the modelling that suggested (a while ago now) that the tsunami had washed away the last vestiges of Doggerland, was very generalised and simply showed that low lying coastal land would have been vulnerable. It is hardly rocket science. In reality, Doggerland had been diminishing for millennia before that. The tsunami provides a convenient shorthand for the loss of Doggerland, but I suspect that its real power lies among modern archaeologists rather than the people of the past. The population of Doggerland had a high degree of mobility, many were seafarers, all understood the landscape and held the inherent flexibility they needed to survive. They lived in a changing world; for them, change was the norm and they knew how to survive. The tsunami was a disaster, but Doggerland was already disappearing and would have been lost with or without the Storegga Slide. For me the tsunami is a distraction: I try to avoid it in lectures, but, usually, the first question will be along the lines of: ‘you didn’t mention the tsunami, but…’. Arghhh.

The final point to be made was that the geography of Britain, and the geographical processes to which the land is subject, make it inevitable that the south, specifically the south-east, should be the centre of things. It would be easy to think this, if the archaeology did not suggest otherwise. There is no evidence for any geographical ‘preferencing’ prior to around 3500 BC, except to say that populations in the north seem to have had their own roots and these roots may not always have been the same as those of the populations in the south. By 3500 BC the economic basis of life across Britain has shifted to farming and, curiously, current evidence suggests that something happens in the north to springboard a series of developments in cultural and social life which spread, pretty quickly, southwards. So the north had it first. Some might see this influence as culminating in the construction of monuments like Avebury and Stonehenge. Only after this do we begin to see the increasing social power of the south and it is a long time before it extends fully to encompass the north. My own hunch is that this power shift is related, among other things, to the increasing importance of external contacts and the way in which the proximity (and ease of access) to the continent allowed society in the south to develop.

For me the programme was interesting. It clearly got me thinking, and it is good to hear archaeology ‘out there’, but the content was sadly old fashioned. I can’t be the only one to find the period fascinating. The number of research projects taking place and pushing knowledge forward suggests that I’m not. There is new stuff to read, and it is always worth reading it.

Maybe the guests were just having a bad morning on Radio Four on Monday, but I was sad to hear them painting such a depressing view of our ancestors and the world in which they lived. It is a shame when popular science is out of date. If we are going to do it, we need to do it properly. I do understand that I’m biased, but for me the landscape of Doggerland and the lives of the Late Glacial and Early Mesolithic communities of Britain are full of wonderful, colourful, promise.

Book Review: Art and Architecture in Neolithic Orkney: Process, Temporality and Context

Neolithic art
The motifs used in Neolithic Orkney lend themselves to many media. We forget that they may have been used in ways that we have long lost, such as tattoos or textiles.

I was recently asked to review a book on Neolithic Orkney for our local paper, The Orcadian, and, while there is a great online version, it occurred to me that it might be of interest to those who read the blog so, with kind permission of Sigurd Towrie, the editor, I am posting it here.

Art and Architecture in Neolithic Orkney: Process, Temporality and Context.

Antonia Thomas. Archaeopress. 2016 (available in hard copy or as an ebook)

We are all used to reading media snippets about amazing structures and spectacular artefacts from Orkney’s Neolithic past. How refreshing therefore to have a whole book devoted to one aspect in detail. Even more exciting: a book that takes information from our newest and most enigmatic site at Ness of Brodgar, and puts it into context with information from two of our oldest sites: Skara Brae and Maeshowe. Finally, and the icing on the cake, it is readable.

Art and Architecture in Neolithic Orkney is a handsome volume; it is well illustrated and clearly set out. It is designed to be read from cover to cover but in fact there is a lot of detail here and it also makes for an excellent ‘dipping’ book. The main thrust, as you might guess, is to provide an overview of the amazing suite of decorated stones found within the structures of Neolithic Orkney through detailed studies of these three key sites. Within each site, particular case studies are set out.

It is a comprehensive piece of work, taking us first through a history of the archaeological study of art, and then providing a brief guide to the Neolithic art of Britain and Ireland. This helps to put Orkney art into context, though one cannot help wondering, given the thoroughness of the present research and the ephemeral nature of many of the pieces recorded, whether decorated stones might be underrepresented outside of Orkney. Many of the pieces here were unknown before Thomas’ research.

We are led deeper into a fascinating detailed consideration of the individual sites. With regard to Skara Brae and Ness of Brodgar a wealth of useful material is provided, including up-to-date breakdowns of the architectural remains and stratigraphy. Even for Maeshowe, a site which you might think had been well published in all its glory, Thomas finds angles and information that have not been presented before.

After this is it time for some serious discussion and analysis. In common with archaeological thought today, Thomas has moved far beyond the old-fashioned ‘Art Historical’ approach and even beyond the ‘Technological/Functional’ approach that was all the rage when I graduated. You won’t find an explanation of ‘meaning’, nor detailed discussions of manufacture, but hopefully any disappointment will be assuaged by learning new ways of thinking about the pieces. Rather than focusing on possible interpretations of Neolithic Art as a sort of code from the past, Thomas teaches us to consider the ways in which it was used and how it may have functioned as part of everyday life.

This is done through three different examinations: first, the processes of incorporating material into Neolithic structures; second, the lifespan (often brief) of art as a visible element; and third the wider context of community and identity in Neolithic Orkney. We are never going to know exactly what the makers of the ‘Brodgar Butterfly’ or the Skara Brae Lozenges meant by them, just as we don’t know what Leonardo intended to convey in the Mona Lisa’s smile, or Banksy with his graffiti. But we can start to think about the roles that these pieces of art played in relationship to their surroundings and those who frequented them.

In this way, Thomas has identified very specific and differing forms of creation and deposition. For me perhaps the most surprising elements are the ways in which design appears to be less important than creation, and existence more important than visibility. Is this indeed ‘art’ as we understand it? Only in the way in which a hidden tattoo or plasterer’s doodle might be so defined.

There is a lot to take in. There is a lot to think about. It is a book that will linger and enrich any exploration of the remains of Neolithic Orkney. The ‘art’ itself is just wonderful, it was clearly an integral part of the lives of our Neolithic ancestors. I can’t help a slight regret that I’m still so far from ‘reading’ it, but I now know so much more about those who tramped the passages and halls of the past. I’m happy.

The book is based on Antonia Thomas’ PhD thesis (itself an exemplary piece of work I am told), and she has done an impressive job, not just in completing the thesis but in producing a publication less than a year after attaining her doctorate. It marks the inauguration of the Archaeology Institute’s Research Publications, judging by the ongoing projects in the Institute one can only wait with excitement for the next volumes in the series. Meanwhile, if you have an interest in the lives of those who lived and farmed in Orkney five thousand years ago, I urge you to go out and buy it.

Ideas of efficiency

Remains of a posh supper? Remains of a paupers’ meal? Actually, a teaching aid.

To my mind, to be a successful archaeologist you have to move beyond the norms by which you live. Of course the people of the past were people, just like us. But there can be no hard and fast rules where people are concerned. The search for universal rules of behaviour ultimately undermined the rigid application of middle-range theory in the 1980s, and we still need to be careful that we do not slip into the trap of assuming that just because we think ‘thus’, so the people of the past must have applied the same criteria.

A great example of this lies in the oft discussed ideas that stone circles were not necessarily conceived as ‘finished’ entities, and that the aim while building them may have been to employ more, rather than less, hours in construction. The act of building; the organisation; the ability to undertake tasks that did not simply relate to the production of food; the creation, transport and erection of a single stone: all of these may have been the statements that served to knit a community together and enhance its image in the eyes of its neighbours.

Twenty-first century ideas of efficiency cannot be applied to the past, even the recent past: consider how the construction of a cathedral may have so much more meaning imbued within it over and above the simple erection of a place in which to worship God. In the case of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall it was indeed a building designed to shout out the glory of God. But it also set out to be a statement of the wealth and connections of the new Earl, Earl Rognvald, while at the same time serving to establish his power over and above that of the established church in the islands. It was, also, a visible promise to his new dependents: he would see to it that Orkney remained great and that their lives under him would flourish.

The same caveats work, even when we discuss humbler buildings. Homes, for example, have only in recent times evolved to include ideas of space and privacy that would have seemed very alien to many of our ancestors. They are not always recognised in cultures away from Britain today; my former family-in-law in Chile never really understood my occasional need for solitude. Today in the UK, we incorporate elements that are not actually ‘efficient’ into our structures; we could live cheaper lives and expend less energy if we had fewer rooms and made use of them to house more people. Modern ‘energy efficient’ architecture still has to incorporate twenty-first century norms of ‘the right way to live’.

A further example of behaviour today that might surprise our forebears lies in the regular use of the gym. What would they make of our tendency to spend hours working together, and yet never talk, simply to run, cycle, or walk without ever actually going anywhere? Of course, there is a point to it for us: the relentless drive to keep fit. But would that be obvious to the untutored outsider (which is what we archaeologists are)? I suspect that some sort of religious cult would be the most likely explanation, and maybe they would not be wrong.

It is quite fun actually to set yourself to thinking of other ways in which our norms may have been different in the past, and of ways in which our own activities might be misinterpreted. If you have not come across it, I thoroughly recommend David Macaulay’s book ‘Motel of the Mysteries’. It is a bit dated now but it is still a lot of fun and provides an important cautionary tale about leaving your own world behind when you delve into the world of the past. I think this is one of the reasons that many archaeologists enjoy Science Fiction: the creation of worlds is, after all, what we do.

Whatever your motives, remember that to be an archaeologist one of the most important attributes is imagination. As someone once said in a different context: you should always be prepared for the unexpected!