New Publication: Prehistoric Communities of the River Dee.

Mesolithic Deeside.
A classic evocation of Mesolithic Deeside at work and the sort of evidence they are finding, by Ali Cameron.

Mesolithic Deeside are a voluntary community archaeology group who walk the ploughed fields along the middle reaches of the River Dee around Banchory in order to record the prehistoric archaeology by collecting worked stone from the surface of the field. In the three years from 2017 – 2019 their work resulted in the recovery of over 11,000 lithics representing at least 15 archaeological sites dating from around 12,000 BC to c.2,000 BC. Their work is exciting because it is shedding light on a period of Scottish archaeology about which very little is yet known: the Late Upper Palaeolithic right at the end of the last Ice Age. It also provides an unparalleled glimpse of the extent of human activity along the river.

While others were perfecting their sourdough recipes, or embroidering replicas of the Bayeux Tapestry, I was working with the members of Mesolithic Deeside and various associated archaeologists to produce a publication of the first three years of work of the group. The final words might be mine – but the hard work was undertaken by many others. I had a wealth of reports and field notes, all supplied by the team, from which to hone our document. There were also extensive photographs, maps and drawings – all put together through the talent of others.

Did we succeed in producing an informative but readable account? Download it from the link here and judge for yourself. I think it is a fascinating story, but then I am biased.

The other thing to note here is all the help and expertise we have received from others. From the National Lottery Heritage Fund who provided the funding that got the group going, to Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service who were always there with support and advice, and Historic Environment Scotland who have supported the final publication, as well as many, many other funding bodies along the way. Then there was the fantastic team at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland who edited and published the final report as part of their wonderful Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports series (wonderful not just for the content but also because it is freely available – not a paywall in sight). And so many people along the way. Community archaeology is a brilliant evocation of the variety of skills that can be brought to bear on unravelling the past when people care.

I won’t say that there were not moments when I woke up in the middle of the night and despaired at the size of the task I had taken on. But for me the end result justifies those odd moments of reflection (and I do love writing).

The work of Mesolithic Deeside continues. No matter how much we know about the work of the past, there is always more to learn. If you want to join in, get in touch with them. It is fun – and healthy! And hopefully there will be more volumes like this one: the finds, and sites, since 2019 are already beginning to mount up!

The sadness of coastal erosion

The impressive erosion face at the archaeological site at Pool, Sanday

One of the most common calls I get is about coastal erosion. Orkney, indeed Scotland, is known for its archaeology. It is not surprising, therefore, given the length of the coastline, and high energy content of the surrounding seas, that the remains of ancient sites are to be found, dropping out of the cliffs and sand Continue reading The sadness of coastal erosion

Archaeology and the future

Wind turbines at Burgar Hill. Energy is now a recognizable component of the Orkney landscape.

An ongoing research project reminds us of the ways in which archaeology encompasses even the most recent and widest uses of material culture. Orkney Energy Landscapes is a collaborative project between The Archaeology Institute, Continue reading Archaeology and the future

Defining our terms

Farming landscape.
The field boundaries with which we are familiar are all modern constructs. Archaeological sites transcend them. Careful recording and terminology is necessary when we do fieldwork.

Sites are key to the work of an archaeologist. But what, exactly, do we mean by a site? It is a term that we use all of the time, but it has become so commonplace that we rarely stop to consider what we are talking about. It is worthwhile Continue reading Defining our terms

New Publication

The waterfalls in the gorges at the upper reaches of the River Dee in the Cairngorm Mountains. One of the spectacular locations of the work on Mesolithic activity reported here.

It is always good to see a piece of research come to publication. In this case it brings back memories of a wonderful trip into the Cairngorms around the time of my 50th birthday to have a look at the location of some Mesolithic finds that Continue reading New Publication

Significant Sites?

Fieldwalking groups such as Mesolithic Deeside, here photographed by Ali Cameron, have a real contribution to make with regard to picking up the tiniest signs of life in the past.

I’ve been thinking about the significance of archaeological sites in connection with a project I’m working on just now. I’m concerned in particular with lithic scatter sites: fields, or other areas, where a spread of worked stone is visible on the surface of the ground.

Some lithic scatter sites have many thousands of pieces of worked stone (usually, but not always, flint), but others may have only a few hundred, or even a handful. Some sites cover a wide area, some are smaller, some more concentrated. By classifying the types of worked stone found it is possible to get an idea of the chronological periods represented. The fashion for some things was, thankfully, different in the Mesolithic to the Neolithic and so on. Arrowheads are particularly vulnerable to fashion. The range of pieces can also provide a rough idea of activity: whether there is debris from the manufacture of tools for example, or perhaps mainly points, blades or scrapers left from the completion of some tasks. It is very rough and really, in order to understand any site better, some sort of more invasive archaeology is necessary to investigate the preservation of in situ features and other material. But often the collection and classification of a surface assemblage is the best way to obtain a basic understanding of the archaeology.

What bothers me, however, is how to assess the significance of these places? In the past we have tended to judge them by size and, where present, date. Big sites, with lots of material, would be regarded as more significant than small sites with only a few pieces. Sites with pieces that relate to earlier or less well-known periods also tend to be regarded as significant. But this is all very crude.

For starters, it is patently, only a register of the significance of a site in the present day. We are assessing the significance to modern archaeologists. Is it not, in fact, an unreliable evaluation to base the significance of a site in prehistory on the amount of debris that people left behind? By that measure the most significant places in post-war Britain would be old landfill sites. Weird (or maybe not).

Size may come into it, but it is a complex equation. Occupation sites generally contain a diversity of evidence: traces of shelters, hearths, storage, and waste. Our homes are certainly significant. But are they the most significant places in our lives? What about the wooded hillock a mile away where we know we can always be sure of bagging some game for the pot? What about the crystal-clear waterfall that leads to the burn running past our fields? It ensures life-giving fresh water throughout the year. What about the farm where we grew up, where our sister still lives with her family – we have never returned but it is always in our hearts. How about the tombs of the ancestors? The great oak where everyone congregates when we need to gather? You get my gist. One thing about our 2020 lockdown – it has changed the way we view the places on which we rely. Significance is not stable.

Some archaeologists are lucky. They have records, or even informants, to discuss the way in which the landscape worked for other communities. Opportunities like this open up new worlds, new interpretations. But they don’t exist for those of us concerned with the early Prehistory of Europe. The life of an archaeologist is devoted to interpreting other communities, but, of necessity, our first-hand experience is always limited to ourselves.

It occurs to me that we are wrong to dismiss the teeny-weeny lithic scatters as insignificant. We cannot ever know. While archaeologists focus on definable sites, the people of the past did not operate in discrete boxes; their behaviour took place across the landscape. There is, thus, a geographic gradation of detritus relating to any activity or life. Centres, known as sites, are likely to contain the highest density of detritus (in this case lithic assemblages), but it is unlikely to stop completely between centres. In order to understand human behaviour, therefore, it is important to record and investigate the less prolific areas of lithic material as well as the higher density spreads. This has long been an issue for archaeologists, and it is, of course, complicated by the geomorphological and other taphonomic processes that also impact on archaeological survival. Foley considered it, very eloquently, in 1978. Archaeology focusses on clearly defined sites with large numbers of finds, but those with fewer finds are likely to be just as interesting (and significant) in terms of ancient human behaviour. How to investigate and interpret the less clearly defined site, where a handful of lithics may be the only indication of prehistoric activity, is more of a problem, but we can, at least, record them and make a start.

Higher density sites may be significant in terms of archaeological resource and past human behaviour, but it is perhaps through examination of lower density sites that archaeological fieldwalking really comes into its own. In this way it offers a real contribution towards interpretation of the behaviour of the prehistoric communities. These are the places through which people passed: the routeways, overnight stops, hunting blinds, kill-site butchery areas, all the little everyday places that completed the web of human activity.

Without the small, and apparently insignificant, as well as the large, our archaeologies will always be incomplete.

Remote Archaeology

Archaeology is not only about the joys of digging outside, in the rain! There is a lot more to it. Excavation in progress on the Mesolithic site at Kinloch, Rum, in the 1980s.

My introduction to archaeology was very much through the joy of being out of doors. Exploration, hard work – often in bad weather, fellowship and friendship. Some of the people I met on digs in the 1970s are still friends today. It was Continue reading Remote Archaeology

Archaeology: the essential ingredient of Rewilding

Rewilding should not just be about remote places, it has to be about the urban landscape too.

I’m often asked about the lessons that archaeology can offer the populations of today. In particular, people are interested to know about research on past sea-level and climate change. In general, I am sceptical that archaeology has anything much to offer. Population levels today are so much higher than they Continue reading Archaeology: the essential ingredient of Rewilding

The Value of Community Archaeology

The Mound, Loch Fleet, by Telford
This bridge was completed in 1816 under the direction of Thomas Telford. It was designed as a bridge for the road north and to control the ingress of seawater into Loch Fleet.

I spent two days in Inverness at the start of June participating in a meeting to start a review of archaeology across Highland Region. It was organised by ARCH, Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands, and it was a well-attended couple of days with some fascinating papers and lots of good discussion. Continue reading The Value of Community Archaeology

css.php