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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
The excavations at the Ness of Brodgar are a big attraction for summer visitors to Orkney.
Orkney in the summer is a lively place for archaeologists. It is fun to try and spot the archaeological diggers when I am doing my supermarket shopping in the evenings. There are usually two or three excavations taking place and a lifetime of digging has given me some sort of second sense about the lean, hungry look of those searching through the items that have been reduced in price because they are nearing their sell by date.
Of course, the main attraction for the diggers is the opportunity to work at Ness of Brodgar. It is a big excavation, and many of the team return year after year to follow the progress of uncovering the amazing structures there and keep up with the friends they made in previous seasons. At the weekends you might see folk who have come over to Mainland Orkney for supplies from Links of Noltland in Westray, or sometimes there is another team up working on one of the Viking sites, or on the chambered tombs in Rousay. It is nice for me, as I can catch up with those who live south – some of the diggers are colleagues, some are people I have known since they were students at universities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow.
There is another sort of archaeological visitor too. As word about the archaeology in Orkney spreads around the globe, so each year brings a steady stream of people undertaking their own research. Many are students who have chosen to write dissertations and research projects on aspects of Orkney archaeology. Some come from the UK, but there is an increasing number from overseas. Quite often they will have come across one or other of my guidebooks and, finding me online, they email to see if they can meet up and chat about their ideas. When I can, I agree because it is a great way to find out about a whole range of projects and points of view that I’d never contemplate otherwise. Sometimes, they are not archaeology students but rather architects, artists, or ecologists. Their outlook and the things that excite them about the past can be very different and interesting. It is particularly rewarding when I receive an email attachment months later – a few will send me their completed work and I always enjoy reading it. This year’s visitors have included a painter, a poet, and, most recently, a couple of students in photo journalism from the University of Missouri who were filming the Neolithic archaeology and comparing it to the life of the farmers of Orkney today. I’m hoping that they might be able to return to Orkney with their completed film, because it would be nice for people to see it and hear about their work.
That brings me nicely to the final summer visitor – each year we seem to see an increase in professional teams here to film, especially at the Ness of Brodgar. Television crews come from all around the world to catch the action in Orkney. The main crew this year are from the BBC and they are filming a three-part series. I understand that the presenters include Neil Oliver (who worked as part of my excavation team on Rum when he was a student at the University of Glasgow many years ago), Chris Packham, and Andy Torbet. I spent quite a bit of time with the team when they were scoping their filming; it is a good opportunity to discuss the landscape change that I’m interested in as well as the archaeology that I write about in my books such as ‘Between the Wind and the Water’. Actually, once filming begins it is a hectic schedule of rushing around to film at various locations across the islands, interspersed with hanging around waiting for the light to change or the weather to change. At those times I feel glad that I opted for the easy career of writing about it all from the comfort of my study.
Once the winter comes, however, it is hard not to feel a little smug – watching the finished product on television and remembering back to the summer’s conversations. Then I can look out of my window and feel even smugger that I am still here – at the heart of it all.
When I studied archaeology many moons ago we were taught (to paraphrase), very much along the lines that civilization had come out of the east. It was a time of diffusionist ideas and thus it naturally flowed that new developments would appear first somewhere around the Straits of Dover and gradually work their way north. Text books, like Lacaille’s excellent ‘The Stone Age in Scotland’, followed this model, fitting the available evidence into a paradigm whereby early-looking stone tools in the north of Scotland were interpreted as representing archaic Mesolithic survivals, still in use in a backward northern society, centuries after people further south had taken advantage of more recent developments.
I can’t remember when I first became aware of the idea of perceptual geography, but I do remember being very taken with a map of the North Sea which I first saw in Bergen in the mid 1980s. I still have a copy on my wall. It looked west, from Bergen across to Scotland, and I suddenly realised that the world could operate very differently for those who do not need tarmac roads and governmental regulation from Westminster (or Edinburgh). It was an idea that I have tried to develop ever since. Thus, when people asked why a remote site like Rum was settled so early on, I could discuss the needs of the Mesolithic population and point out that, for a mobile, sea-going people, islands like Rum are in similar locations to the motorway service stations of England. Equally, if you skew the map of the North Sea, then the central position of Orkney in the maritime empire of the Norsemen becomes obvious.
As my research continued, it became clear that the earliest settlement of Scotland after the Ice Age was not a simple matter of people making their way slowly north as conditions improved. Rather, it looked as if there may have been several ‘homelands’ including perhaps somewhere in the vicinity of southern Scandinavia where the stone tools shared certain characteristics with those of northern Scotland. Today, we might recognise this as affirmation of the migration of groups along the northern coastlands of Doggerland.
In recent years this has been followed by discussion of the primacy of societal and cultural developments in Neolithic Britain and the suggestion that elements such as Grooved Ware may have been part of a migration of ideas from north to south (an argument eloquently set out by Julian Thomas in his 2010 paper: The Return of the Rinyo Clacton Folk). Following this line of reasoning, iconic monuments such as Stonehenge become the culmination of seeds that first sprouted in the fertile fields of Neolithic Orkney and around monuments such as the Stones of Stenness.
I’m sure there are other examples in the intervening millennia but if we fast forward to today, it is interesting to note the extent to which things ‘northern’ have now become popular. We have Nordic food and design, Scandi-noir in publishing and on television, new histories of northern exploration, and a host of books exploring our attitude to the north. For the first time for ages, living in the north is no longer the symbol of the recluse but rather it is the trendy thing to do. At the same time our politics is fragmenting. Northern communities demand a voice and the developing primacy for everyday society of internet technology over the internal combustion engine is allowing them to develop it.
We no longer need to be able to reach London in a day. Those of us who live in the north, are happy in the north, and those who don’t, seem, increasingly, to wish they did. But then, as archaeologists, we knew this all along.
I was writing about developments in the use of sound as an interpretive, and even investigative, tool in archaeology. It is nice to see archaeology diverging from the relatively narrow way in which it has presented itself in the past. I know that academic writing is an important means to communicate quality assured research, but personally, I find writing popular accounts much more fun.
Both academic and popular archaeology contain narrative – the stories that we weave to make sense of our views. Narrative has been important throughout human history. It predates the written word, of course. Today we pay attention to the way in which it is delivered and this affects how we receive it. Academic writing is meaningful and trusted. Popular writing is often looked down on a bit, though it may actually be easier to read and understand. Television – well, we are often not so sure, nowadays we are frequently concerned that it might be ‘dumbed down’ a bit, depending on the channel? The Internet, curiously, has seen a swing in the opposite direction – from the realm of doubtful validity ten years ago, we have grown to trust many websites and even use them as a reliable source of information. Storytellers, we tend to regard as the least reliable, presumably on the grounds that they make up their stories. Yet they have the most honourable antiquity.
There was a time when the Storyteller was a valued and significant member of society. In many societies storytellers have been responsible for both the education of the young and for the keeping of communal history. Consider the Norse Sagas. They originally comprised oral tales, tales for the telling on long dark nights, sure, but also tales that provided valuable information about past events, people and distant places. This information was vital for the next generation to ensure that the way they went about things was informed by past understanding. And to help prepare them for new places and new situations. And yet, we are hazy about many of those who composed the sagas, how many of them there were, where they lived and so on. A few are mentioned, some we know by name, but there must have been many others who contributed.
In most cases, it seems, the stories were more important than those who wrote them. How different things are today! The cult of the celebrity writer often obscures our appreciation of the text. In academic writing, the use of jargon often obscures the meaning of the text. I’m all for jargon as a convenient shorthand to avoid having to explain everything – what an oxbow lake is, or the package that we call ‘Neolithic’, for example, but I hate it when it is used to dress up poorly thought through argument as something deeply meaningful. Too often jargon can be lazy and duplicitous. I’ve always felt that people should not have to work to understand my text. If an examiner, or book reviewer, finds it easy to appreciate what I want to say, then, in general, I find that they usually like my work more.
I’d like to get back to a world where good stories were valued whatever the means by which they were delivered. Academic writing has its place, but it is not the only way in which to communicate our work. Other methods reach a wider audience and they are just as significant.
There is a real movement just now to make use of different ways in which to communicate archaeology and it is very exciting. This is not just through fiction writing, it encompasses a whole range of media including poetry (see the work of Laura Watts), art (eg: Aaron Watson) and sound (Ben Elliott and Jon Hughes).
One of the essential conundrums for those of us who work in the Mesolithic is that we are trying to communicate information about our Mesolithic forebears in a way which just did not exist in their world. Even if they did have some form of written communication that we have yet to recognize, their world was largely an aural one.
After listening to Mark Edmonds talk about his work at Jodrell Bank the other day I was thinking just how much sound must have mattered to the Mesolithic community and wondering to what extent our sound-world differs from theirs. Obviously the content will be different. But what about the quality? How much were they aware of levels and tones that we no longer notice? It would be nice to think that we could start to consider this when trying to interpret sites. We tend to diminish the significance of the soundscape because our world has become so visual. But it was not so in the past. This is not a new idea. One project has been woven around the iconic site of Star Carr, where archaeologist Ben Elliott and sound artist Jon Hughes worked to explore the sounds of Mesolithic Britain.
It is important stuff because it helps to make our understanding of life in the past more complete. We can never be sure precisely how people reacted to the aural world around them, but we can start to put together the suite of sounds that they would have encountered and by learning to investigate other senses beyond the visual we add depth to our explorations of the emotional reactions to the world in which people lived. These reactions went on to drive the physical world they created for themselves. And it is from this physical world that the remains of archaeology survive.
In this way we enrich our archaeological understanding. Phenomenology, while still mediated through the mind-set of the twenty-first century person, becomes truly multi-dimensional. Ironically, this step back towards the past has been made possible by modern developments in recording and listening technology as well as increasing awareness of the value of exploring a wider range of data.
The other week I touched upon the altered awareness that I believe any Mesolithic archaeologist needs to develop. A sort of ‘Mindfulness of the Mesolithic’. This is not just a matter of physical surroundings. It extends to other elements of the way in which we locate ourselves in the world.
Today, we make clear divisions between the measurement of physical space: distance, and that of temporal space: time. But has it always been so? Barry Lopez introduced us to the idea that physical distance can also be perceived as time in his book Arctic Dreams. A journey is not just one of 100 km. It is also one of two days. For some societies this is how the world is understood. If you travel just a bit further it becomes more complex. My colleague Richard Clubley was discussing how you move back in time as you move north: when the daffodils are almost over in the south of England in early March, they will only be just emerging for those who live in the north of Scotland. You get the same effect over a shorter distance as you climb a hill: you might set out in the early morning sunshine of a spring day, only to move back in time to late winter snows as you reach the summit.
The rigid boundaries which we impose to make our world understandable can be fluid for those with a different view. A similar fluidity applies to community and landscape. The family, to us, is a fixed concept that operates within strict limits and boundaries. We may include several generations, and we have learnt to accept some who make short term absences, but in general, we live with the same group of people year round. The moment when we leave that group can be traumatic, sometimes played out over years as we re-stabilize into a new independence. Equally, most of us are accustomed to the same piece of landscape throughout the year. It may be small or large; in general, it rarely varies.
Life for the Mesolithic individual was different. We assume that family bonds were recognised, but we are by no means certain that people lived within the same group of individuals year round. At times the group may have split and recombined according to season and task; moving out across the landscape in order to make use of resources. These task-groups may have been based on age, gender, or relationship, or perhaps a subtle combination of all three. At other times outside factors such as a particularly harsh winter, an overly dry summer, or the impact of inundation, may have led to other divisions. In times such as these it is often easier to find food and other resources for smaller groups. Occasionally events such as a significant kill, or a whale stranding would bring people together in larger groups, groups that could be made use of to rekindle old ties and forge new relations.
This was the way of survival.
Today, we find security in the known. We are really very conservative. We like to know what to expect, who to greet, and where we will find food and shelter. We are highly rational beings; we have divided and counted and categorized and described our world into smaller and smaller (and bigger and bigger) units.
I don’t actually think that life for the Mesolithic family was any less ‘known’. But I do think that they knew in a different way. I think they were more comfortable to ‘go with the flow’. In a smaller community it was easier to know everyone, yet live with some; to understand the landscape, yet move across less visited areas; to perceive the passing of the sun as the scale of your journey. Like us, their lives were carefully controlled in order to ensure survival. Unlike us, their control contained the luxury of flexibility.