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

Persistent Places

St Magnus cathedral
St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall is undoubtedly important, but not necessarily the deciding factor when people come to live here.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of persistent places. That is the idea that a place may be occupied for centuries, even longer, on the basis that it is special. A sacred site, for example, may continue to be visited or occupied long after the original activity, and perhaps meaning, has ceased. A landscape may have particular significance that lingers in local consciousness and makes it special and thus attractive to the community.

We often see activity in a location well beyond the lifespan of the original structure or event. Brochs, for example, frequently have surrounding settlements that continue in use well after the original broch tower has fallen into disrepair and in some cases the structure itself may be dismantled and even rebuilt to conform to new requirements. But I think we need to be careful of over ritualising the landscapes and activities concerned.

My town, Kirkwall, has, for example, been settled at least since the time of the Norse. The church of St Olaf, was built about 1035 between the Papdale Burn and the sea. Some have argued that there was a Christian community here before that, and archaeological investigation records activity going back, at least, to the Bronze Age. Today, we have a well-loved cathedral and Kirkwall is certainly a significant religious and political centre for the inhabitants of Orkney. Almost half of us choose to live here.

But I am not sure that we live here for the same reasons as the prehistoric inhabitants of the area. And, though the cathedral is important, I suspect that its presence was not the deciding factor for many of the present population. Kirkwall has many conveniences: local shops and supermarkets, restaurants, library, cinema, sports and leisure centre, hospital and so on. In other words, we, ourselves, have created the factors that make this a persistent place.

It is a difficult conundrum to puzzle out the origin of the elements that make somewhere special. And of course, they are likely to change over time, just as lives have changed over time. I find it pretty amazing to consider that I look out over the same bay that has been appreciated by the population of Kirkwall for around 1000 years and, of course, the basic requirements that are met by the area have, in some ways, stayed the same: food; transport; relaxation; companionship; and spiritual life. But this is due as much to the work of the generations who have lived here down the centuries as it is to any intrinsic qualities of the area.

Yes, of course, there are sacred sites that remain sacred. There are sacred sites that remain significant, if changed in use (Stonehenge). There are significant sites that remain popular. But, in most places, it is the combination of people and nature that serves to produce the persistent place. Not simply the location.

It is a good example of the deep entanglement between people and nature.

 

 

 

Virtual Worlds

Official Screenshot for Far Cry Primal showing the main character in the landscape
Official Screenshot for Far Cry Primal showing the main character in the landscape setting.

My guilty secret is that I’ve been playing on my son’s Playstation Four. Those in the know will guess that the motivation for this is the release of Far Cry Primal. Far Cry Primal is, to quote the blurb an ‘open-world sandbox set in the Stone Age era’. It is a video game where the violence relates to three competing ‘stone age’ tribes and their environment. It is fascinating. Continue reading Virtual Worlds

Timedepth in the Landscape

Midhowe area, Rousay
This shot of the island of Rousay encompasses remains from the Neolithic onwards, but where are the hunter-gatherer sites?

In the past (less so today), I was often approached by anxious parents, wondering about their child’s choice of archaeology as a subject for university study. One of my points was that, whatever your ultimate career, a degree in archaeology would enrich you for life. Not only were there all the usual platitudes about learning, thinking and research; more important was the point that, once you had studied archaeology, a walk in the countryside would never be the same again. And walking in the countryside is popular for many reasons.

It never ceases to amaze me how much there is to see in a piece of land once you have got your eye in. This point was admirably made by Dan Lee of the Archaeology Institute at UHI in Orkney recently when he led a group of us round the cleared community of Quandale on Rousay which he has been studying for a while now. There was just so much to see in the landscape: ruined steadings; burnt mounds; field dykes; barrows; tombs. The remains spanned at least four thousand years and spoke of the human condition: survival; success; tragedy; expansion; eviction; farming; life and death. Over the years, archaeology has made my countryside exploration so much more meaningful.

But there is a problem with this. When we focus on the remains that we can see, we recognise the traces of many, many past generations, but equally, we ignore the traces of many others. Prior to the mid fourth millennium BC most communities left no upstanding footprint to mark their passing. And Scotland has been inhabited since at least the tenth millennium, probably before.

The hunter-gatherers who inhabited the land before the advent of farming were just as significant as those who came after. But their traces are harder to find. They may be buried under peat, or subsumed below more recent remains. They are rarely obvious on the surface. For a discussion of this, have a read of the fieldwork section of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Report in ScARF. All too often we ignore the problem of finding these early sites, but by doing so we are in danger of losing an important part of our past.

Even where we do locate early material, it can be hard to deal with it effectively. We have a good management system for archaeology in Scotland based upon the work of two groups: Historic Environment Scotland (recently cut free from the Scottish Government, but still obliged to undertake statutory work); and Local Authority Archaeologists (whose knowledge of a region or country is rarely beaten). Yet this system is designed to look after upstanding, built features. Houses, tombs, roadways, earthworks: if people have made them we can protect and record them. But the hunters who lived here thousands of years ago rarely left upstanding monuments. They had a more subtle approach to altering the earth. Their mark is left in hearths, postholes, and flints. Especially flints, lots of flints.

When we find flints (or any other lithic tools), it can be harder to know what to do with them.  Statutory protection such as scheduling, is more difficult to enforce for a lithic scatter. At the time of writing it has never been done. It would be nice to see this situation remedied as a starter action by the new heritage body Historic Environment Scotland; it would enable it to make a significant mark on the legacy of good heritage protection and management that it has inherited from its predecessors. It would show that it is set to move things forward.

For the rest of us, we need to broaden the scope of our eye when we are out in the landscape. As long as we mentally prioritize the remains that lie above the ground we are missing the full extent of the richness and depth that lies around us. It is possible to develop a ‘Mesolithic eye’ and see the landscape through a reverse filter that restores an ancient topography. I’d love this to become as natural as the desire to see the remains of Medieval settlement or Neolithic ceremony.