Storytelling

Runes at Maeshowe
The Vikings who carved the runes at Maeshowe were clearly literate and yet they were used to the power of the spoken word as a significant source of information

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.

Listening to the past

Bootleg Beatles
Sound is an essential element of the world in which we live. The sounds of our childhood are profoundly influential. The Bootleg Beatles at LunarFest 2015.

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.

And, of course, it is fun!

Altered Awareness

Blick Mead spring.
Upwelling bubbles in the pool at Blick Mead give the impression of animated cup and ring carvings. The combination of stillness  with animation is a good example of the way in which boundaries can become more flexible.

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.

Past Lives

reindeer butchery
The author tries her hand at reindeer butchery in Lapland 1982 – lack of skill was countered by hunger!

Have you been watching any of the ‘past lives’ reality shows on television? I find that they have a horrible fascination for me. I just wish that they did not call them by names that made use of history and archaeology. In some cases, they can get us thinking about the lives of our ancestors, but while the message should be related to the loss of ancient skills and the difference of the world, it rarely is. All too often they give the idea that life in the past was a long hard struggle.

I can understand that the message: that we really have things much better today, may be a comforting one to give out, but there is so much more that we could take away. For starters, how can anyone think that these programmes actually tell us anything about life in the past?

Those who lived in the past, whether hunter-gatherer or 19th century baker, inherited and developed a deep skill set suitable for their particular lives. Today we require a different skill set and this means that we have lost the precise skills that we once used for other things. Of course, you can train yourself up to hunt boar, till with oxen, or bake in a wood fired oven. But you will never be doing it instinctively in quite the same setting as your predecessors. The boar will be different: living in different woods; surrounded by different predators; and surviving in different numbers. The farming is different: oxen are less common and unused to ploughing; the soil has been cleared and cultivated with other equipment; it has been subject to the application of fertilizer and pesticides; seed stock varies; even the weather is likely to have changed. It is the same for the baker: flours vary; ovens vary; your own strengths and skills vary; as do the tastes of your customers.

In fact, though there are some universal requirements for shelter warmth and food, we are not the same people as those of the past. Our bodies may look similar but our needs have changed. We use different foods and we require different amounts of calories. We are used to modern clothing; how many of us would survive barefoot, or without a thick fleece jacket? We have different social norms and different expectations – not just from the world around us but also from our friends and family. It always amuses me when modern health and safety intrudes onto the set, or medics appear to remove a participant who has not managed to digest the right sort of protein. Sadly for our ancestors, no such safety nets were available. And yet some of them survived!

Putting yourself ‘back in time’ is a fascinating experience. I know because once, many years ago now, I tried it. It got me thinking and it influenced my archaeology profoundly. But it didn’t actually tell me anything about what people did in the past. Except that, whatever it was, they were bloody good at it.

These programmes are fun, many of us find them compelling television. But they tell us more about ourselves today; don’t let’s give them a spurious academic validity.

 

The Archaeological ‘Truth’?

Stonehenge reconstruction
Archaeology is all about telling stories – here in the interpretive centre at Stonehenge.

As you know one of my interests lies in the nature of archaeological truth.

Actually, I don’t believe that there is any such thing as ‘truth’ in archaeology – we can no more be certain of the motivations, or even the actions, that took place in the past, than we can of the reasons behind the things we did yesterday. But when we are writing we are all, as archaeologists, aware of this. Or are we? Given this lack of definitive proof we have to accept that without supposition there would be no archaeology.  But we have to learn how to use it properly. I think we have fallen into an archaeological shorthand that means that instead of saying: ‘the possible Neolithic houses at the site that we interpret as a village and which we call today Skara Brae’, we say: ‘The Neolithic houses at the village of Skara Brae’. Archaeological readers, we hope, will understand the caveats that go into any archaeological statement.

With this in mind, most authors will, at some point, preface their books with a statement to the effect that the interpretation presented may well change in the future. I don’t think most people have a problem with this – they accept that any discipline moves forward and the popular media keep people well aware of the advent and benefits of new archaeological techniques. When they were putting together the interpretive displays at Skara Brae, David Clarke and Pat Maguire tried to get around the issue of highlighting speculation by explicitly using a normal font face for ‘fact’ and italics for ‘supposition’. This works well – it looks good and does not prevent people from reading the text, but I wonder how many people have read enough to be aware of the reasons behind the change in type face?

Sometimes when we are working with non-archaeological colleagues, or those new to the profession, it can be more complex. When I was a recent graduate I felt strongly that because we could not verify the functional names we gave stone tools, like arrowhead, and because many pieces probably had multiple functions, we should eschew those functional names for more neutral terms. I was probably a bit of a pain about it. Over time, I realised that people did hold a more nuanced view of the terminology than I gave them credit for and I gradually relaxed. Now that I am older I find that the tables are turned and it is my turn to explain my use of traditional terminology.

One element of this that make me curious is the way that people fixate on some elements of our archaeological interpretation to the exclusion of others. Words such as ‘ritual’ or ‘ceremonial’ are guaranteed to raise the hackles of the interpretive purist, whereas they are much more likely to let terms such as settlement, or burial, go by unnoticed. To me these are equally laden. The ‘tombs’ of Neolithic Orkney seem to have been designed for so much more than simple disposal of the dead. And one of my personal bugbears is the unqualified use of ‘settlement’ when really we have no idea what went on. How do we define settlement even when it does involve an over night stop – could the camp-site that results from a group of 14 year olds celebrating the summer solstice be called a settlement? Is it domestic? I find that I am constantly seeking alternatives that are less value-laden – such as the bland ‘activity site’, or even ‘occupation’, when I am working on Mesolithic material. But then, of course, I don’t have burial sites or even many possible ceremonial sites, to worry me in Mesolithic Scotland.

Are we getting lazy at writing, and slow to re-examine the evidence for our deeply held beliefs? Possibly. Perhaps we are not good at welcoming new people into the profession and listening to what they have to say. We are certainly guilty of presenting unfounded suggestions as ‘gospel truth’. But, of course, we are just telling stories. We all need to remember that.

Creating Stories

Storm at sea
Watching a storm approach – when you live in the country the weather becomes something visual.

The vagaries of recent days have reminded me of one of the big differences that I have experienced since I moved north. Here, I experience the weather totally differently to the way in which it got me when I lived in the city.

In the city the weather was something that you felt. It was cold, or it might be wet, sometimes it was windy, occasionally it was hot. Here, there is so much more variety to it. For starters, the weather is something that you see, almost more than you feel. I love to watch big storms swirling across the sea towards the house. Once upon a time I found it hard to imagine the properties of air as something visual apart from the obvious times when fog or darkness interrupted my vision. Today I find myself obsessed with the sky and the clouds. I’m constantly looking up to see what is coming and from where. Sometimes it is just for the sheer beauty of it. Sometimes it helps me to prepare before I go out. Can I hang the washing out? Only if the white horses on the sea are not very pronounced. Which way round should I park the car? Bitter experience has taught me of the power of the wind on an open car door – more than once (I’m not a fast learner).

It has made me realise just how much our modern lives differ from those of the people we study in the past. It is not just the big things – stone tools and the lack of electricity. It is the total immersion in everything. It is hard enough for us to appreciate the way in which life can hang in the balance for the small scale subsistence farmer in a marginal environment. But the emotional experience of living is just so different as you travel back. No modern medicine – alters your perception of death; no fridges and freezers – alters your attitude to food; no central heating – alters your feelings about cold, clothing and food (have another look at War and Peace); no combustion engine – alters your perception of distance and home; no social networking – alters your understanding of friendship and communication. It doesn’t mean that we should not attempt to unpick the lives of our ancestors. But it does mean that we need to be aware of the boundaries within which we work.

I heard an interesting story on the radio about the problems of getting information from people today. Apparently, if you ask a simple question of a group of 100 men and 100 women you tend to get very different answers from the men to the women, whereas mathematically the patterning should be similar. But if you suggest that you will be checking the veracity of their answers, the difference vanishes. This, the presenter said, demonstrates the unpredictability of people. Left to our own devices we often ignore the rules. It is an elegant illustration of the conundrum that lies at the heart of archaeology.  As archaeologists we rely on the predictability of the people of the past and our own empathy with their imagined lives in order to build our interpretations of the evidence that we find. Sadly, not only are people unpredictable, but also our empathetic powers might have limitations.

So, archaeology is challenging – no news there. The upside is that as long as we take it on board that we are just creating and refining stories, there is always another one, another version to be woven out of the threads of understanding that we learn to play with every day.