No Rural Idyll

Ness of Gruting neolithic farm
Remains of the Neolithic farmstead on the hillside at Ness of Gruting

Standing on a windswept hillside in the Northern Isles one cannot help but feel the utmost admiration for our ancestors. We may think that we are technologically more advanced, but as you wander among the ruins of the small farm steadings and their fields that dot the slopes it seems nothing short of miraculous that anyone could produce enough food to support a family here. I’ve been exploring the remains from two very different periods: the Neolithic farms of western Shetland and the Viking farms of Unst. Each evening I have returned to my hotel only too glad of the trappings of modern society: hot water, a warm house, electricity and good, varied food.

The relict agricultural landscapes here are wonderful, and well worth exploring. In many places houses and fields still dot the hillside with little of the overlying debris of more recent centuries. It is an evocative experience to wander among the remains and consider the way in which a place so tranquil once rang to the sound of children, dogs, working people and beasts, together with the smells of peat fire, home cooking and farm debris.

Of course there are many factors at play here. First of all, we have the twin elements of weather and climate. I experienced Shetland during the worst summer storms for a long time (as I write this my flight home was delayed).  The times when these landscapes really came alive and the farmsteads were thriving coincided with more clement periods – though not perhaps so very different: a mere change of a degree in temperature or so; a shift in the jet stream; or a few years of better weather, could all make the difference between a good harvest and a bad.

There are also the expectations of the community. Today we all rely on access to washing machines, plenty of food, adequate clothing, and warm homes. But you don’t have to go far back in time to find people for whom life was very different. It always amazes me to consider the photos of rural life a hundred years ago or so that one sees in local museums. There are women bringing peat down from the hillside in great baskets – the loads alone are impressive but what really catches my eye is the fact that in many cases the people depicted are barefoot. We might be worried about hypothermia and a host of other problems but standards were different in the past.

Nevertheless, I don’t want to denigrate the effort and hardship of previous generations. I’m sure that people felt cold, tired, miserable and hungry much of the time. Most of us have forgotten how it is to rely on our own hard work in order to survive. When we need food we go to the supermarket. When we need heat we turn up the gas or electricity. Those who farmed the hillsides of Britain in times past experienced a very basic level of survival. Life could turn on a shoestring. When times were hard, when they could not harvest an adequate crop, when they could not support the animals through a wet summer or a cold winter, then people died. The hillsides that we wander for recreation today may look romantic, but life there was no agricultural idyll in the past.

I’m still left in awe of those who made their homes here in years gone by!

Neolithic Catastrophes

Storm
Storms can make life difficult

I’ve recently been consulted on the reasons for the ‘end’ of the Neolithic. I find it a strange question.

Take a look around you – what do you see? Of course the Neolithic ended, or we would still be living in Skara Brae type settlements. It is called ‘the passage of time’ and it is mixed with human inquisitiveness and inventiveness.

I realise that it is a bit more complex than that. After the apparent sophistication of Neolithic Orkney, Bronze Age Orkney appears on the surface to be somewhat drab in comparison. We have far fewer sites, settlement seems to have shifted away from the coast to isolated farmsteads rather than communal villages (though the new find at Cata Sands might negate that trend), burial becomes largely an individual matter of small earthen barrows and the raising of great stone circles and other monuments seems to stop. All this at a time when research by Michelle Farrell and Jane Bunting and their colleagues indicates that the climate got wetter and perhaps windier. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that some sort of archaeological disaster must have befallen the Neolithic population of Orkney. In reality the evidence suggests that only later in the Bronze Age did farming become more difficult.

The terms ‘Neolithic’ and ‘Bronze Age’ are just archaeological constructs used by us to define suites of evidence that, to our eyes, differ from one another. They are archaeological pigeonholes. We can only apply these terms when the nature of the evidence differs enough to distinguish one ‘period’ from another. This has the effect of exaggerating the distinction between the periods. As archaeologists one of our tasks is to investigate whether the apparent distinction is actually more of a gradation.

Curiously, with regard to one transformation that one might regard as major, that from Mesolithic hunter-gatherers to Neolithic farmers, archaeologists are now happy to recognise a period of two or three centuries during which the slow processes of change mean that it is very difficult to recognise whether a site actually practised farming and used all the ‘stuff’ that we now recognise as truly Neolithic. But it seems that this sort of subtlety still eludes the study of some other periods.

With regard to the ‘arrival’ of the Bronze Age, there was certainly considerable change over time. But we have long recognised that for the general farming household of the earliest Bronze Age metal objects were a rare commodity and I very much doubt that the average Neolithic farmer really woke up one morning and realised that they had become Bronze Age in the way that we sometimes seem to express it.

It is a conundrum. Many archaeologists have long recognised that the age old division system of ‘Stone’, ‘Bronze, ‘Iron’, may be a useful indicator of some sort of progression, but is also a gross oversimplification of reality. But attempts to find another way in which to express the general stages of life in the past have always failed dismally. For now, all we can do is help people to understand that the names by which we call things are just archaeological pigeonholes and that the transformation from one to another is usually a subtler change than our simple use of the terminology might actually suggest.

So, Neolithic catastrophe? End of Days scenario? I need more evidence.

Circling the Square

Stonehenge
The smaller bluestones sit just inside the sarsen trilithons at Stonehenge and act to block your way into the centre of the circle

There is an interesting paper out by Tim Darvill in which he discusses the architecture of Stonehenge and the way in which it is designed to manipulate the experience of those using the monument. In particular, he considers the use of a square element set within an outer circle. Darvill is not negating the way in which Stonehenge developed out of a series of earlier settings, but his argument focuses on the manifestation that left the remains we see today and on the relationship between the bluestone elements of the monument and those comprising the sarsen stones. His interpretation of all this is very personal and some of it has been rehearsed by him before, not least the possibility that the incorporation of the bluestones may have brought special healing properties to Stonehenge. I can’t comment on that, but his paper did put me in mind of my own thoughts when I visited Stonehenge recently and had the privilege of entering into the heart of the monument.

What shocked me as I walked beneath the sarsen trilithon that is traditionally seen as the entrance to the centre (on the side by the Avenue) was the way in which the bluestone circle blocked me from entering further into the heart of the site. In order to progress I had to make a decision: to turn left or turn right. That, in itself is not unusual. What surprised me is that this is precisely the way in which one experiences the monumental structure known (by us) as Structure 8 at Barnhouse in Orkney. At Barnhouse you enter Structure 8 through a narrow break on the eastern side of the outer wall (nb: popular images often show an entrance at the north opposite the entrance to the inner circle, but the main break through the outer wall is to the east and that is the one that appears in Richards’ publication). Once inside, you are confronted by another wall, seemingly unbroken and running to both left and right. Eventually, by following this wall around, one reaches a more complex entrance passage running into the heart of the site. Structure 8, incidentally, incorporates the square-in-a-circle formation that Darville notes at Stonehenge (as Darville recognises). Curiously, this is precisely the symbol used as the World Heritage logo – though in that case the circle represents nature while the square represents human endeavour. It is a powerful motif.

I’ve no idea what this means. There are many, many questions left unanswered: was the inner structure at Barnhouse roofed? Was the outer passage roofed? How high were the walls? How, precisely, were the different elements of the structure at Stonehenge differentiated? What was it all for? What is interesting to me is the overt manipulation of the human experience. I’m fascinated by the way in which our surroundings can cause us to move in certain directions almost unconsciously. Of course, it may have been very overt in the Neolithic, perhaps there were big red warning markers telling people how to behave once inside. That does not really concern me. But I think we can see this sort of control manifest at a variety of other sites and I’m wondering if it is fundamental to this type of Neolithic public space.

Structure 10 at Ness of Brodgar is not completely excavated in plan, but it looks as if it may incorporate a similar entrance system (curiously, the plan suggests that the rounded element of the structure lay inside the square element here, though perhaps the outside wall of the whole site functioned as a rounded boundary). Even the architecture of the henge sites with their banks and ditches, stone circles and interior settings, as at the Stones of Stenness, could be seen as incorporating a series of concentric passages. We don’t know, can’t know, what it means, but to me it suggests that the design of these monuments incorporated some very specific, and perhaps symbolic, behavioural control and that this was repeated from one site to another. Those who visited Barnhouse would have known what was expected of them at Stonehenge.

As, of course, do we – as disciples of the heritage age we arrive at these sites prepared to display certain behaviour: we exhibit awe; we usually walk round in a certain way; we read the guidebooks; we take photographs; we look for the entrance booth to pay; we don’t leave graffiti…

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.

The Challenge of Stonehenge

Stonehenge in low winter light, December 2004
Stonehenge never loses its ability to inspire wonder and mystery. I suspect this is something we have in common with our ancestors who built it.

Was anyone else challenged by watching BBC Four romp through the interpretation of Stonehenge through the ages for Timewatch last night? It wasn’t the content – I loved that, there was some great archive footage and it was very interesting to summarize how we have looked at Stonehenge over the last seventy years. What got me was the way in which Stonehenge emerged as a powerful symbol of patriarchy.

I’m not talking prehistory here (well, maybe just a little bit). I’m talking archaeology. Thank goodness the programme was presented by Alice Roberts (I wonder if that was a deliberate decision). Other than that, apart from the work done by Jacqueline McKinley, all of those interviewed or shown in the old footage were men. I did not even try to count them.

This is not the fault of those making the programme. They can only work with the material available. But it is a problem for archaeology. You might think that it is just a sad reflection of our profession in the past, and that things are better now. But I am afraid that is not the case because the Beeb could apparently only find men to comment on the work. Now, I know that all three commentators were people who have been actively engaged with research at Stonehenge in recent years. Indeed, two of them appeared in the earlier footage. But is it true to say that women have nothing to contribute to the Stonehenge debate today?

I wonder if the problem is a little wider than this? Where are the Mary Beards of British Archaeology? We need women with gravitas who can communicate, but what is gravitas? Well, off the cuff, lets assume that in order to have it you need an academic post (two of last night’s commentators were cited as in academia, the other was in popular publishing). I’ve just had a quick look at the staff pages of the four universities in Scotland that have archaeology departments. It is difficult to be certain because each lists staff in different ways, but it looks as if there are a total of 57 academic staff, of whom 23 are women and 34 are men. In order to assess whether or not they have ‘gravitas’ I then tried to investigate the standing of their post. Again it is difficult, but it looks as if there are 18 posts across Scotland at senior lecturer or above, and of these 3 are held by women and 15 by men (interestingly that means that at lower grades 20 are women and 19 are men).

Of course it might just be that women don’t do research on Stone Circles? I’m not going to get into that debate here, though I have a feeling that women are as interested in broadscale Neolithic topics as men are? I had a quick look at Colin Richards’ book Building the Great Stone Circles of the North: he lists 27 co-authors, of whom 18 are men and 9 are women.

I’m not sure where this leaves us. But I’m sad that archaeology can still come over as such a male dominated profession. In fact, thinking of people like Kathleen Kenyon and Isobel Smith, I’m sad that archaeology has ever come over as a male dominated profession. Perhaps men just get to excavate higher status sites?  Perhaps we listen more seriously to what men say? Perhaps women measure achievement in different ways? Perhaps women leave academia to move into other posts? Popular communication is a vital part of archaeology in the twenty-first century, though. So it would be good to break that barrier with more than a handful of women.

While I’m moaning – I’ve another gripe about the programme: where was the footage of Foamhenge? Channel Five’s full size polystyrene replica of Stonehenge lingers in my memory for the way in which seeing all the stones upright, as if functioning as a single entity, made me think in different ways about the monument. Of course, last night’s programme was only drawing on BBC archives; my fantasy now is for a programme that uses all the material, whatever the channel, and incorporates a greater diversity of voices in the twenty-first century commentary on past interpretations.