I’m often asked about the site at Ness of Brodgar. It is an amazing place, and a fascinating excavation to visit. But I have to say that I am quite glad not to be a part of the project team. Ness is clearly very, very complex and exploring the history of a site like that is not an easy task. I can remember visiting Lionel Masters when he was excavating the long cairn at Grey Cairns of Camster in Caithness and feeling quite overwhelmed by all the stone work there. I have the same feeling at Ness of Brodgar. I don’t envy Nick Card and his colleagues the work that lies ahead as they follow and unravel the threads of human activity that have gone to make up the site.
It is a rare and exciting opportunity, however, to see a side of Neolithic life that we have only just begun to explore in Scotland: we have some detail of the houses and communities in which people lived; we have information on the great chambered tombs they built to house at least some of their dead and where we think people may have gathered as part of the cementing of local identities; we even have the great stone circles and henge sites where a wider expression of society is likely to have taken place. Ness shows us that there was more to life than that. Whatever it was, and we have yet to see the interpretations founded on painstaking analysis that will no doubt arise in years to come, it was clearly an important part of life in Neolithic Orkney. Continue reading Thoughts on Ness of Brodgar
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.
I’ve been discussing the design of Late Neolithic houses in Orkney. Is it an economic and efficient use of space or is it constrained by something else? Is it a product of a highly ritualised society, or just ‘something that works’?
I’m struck by the way in which the interior fittings of the houses resemble the layout of similar structures such as yurts and tipis. Faegri’s book ‘Architecture of the Nomads’, which has long been a favourite of mine, illustrates examples of both circular and rectangular houses where the sacred area lies across the hearth from the entrance and where the spaces to either side of the fire are separated (usually by gender, sometimes by age, and occasionally between family and visitors). Of course, there is only a limited number of ways in which a family can live in a restricted single-room space such as this. But it is interesting that over the millennia, so many communities seem to have done so very successfully. The concepts of privacy and adequate space with which we tend to judge archaeological dwellings are very western and very modern.
Everything at Skara Brae revolved around the central hearth; this is an obvious place to have your heating and cooking area, though some have expressed surprise that it takes up so much space. It is important to remember that the actual fire does not need to fill the hearth stone. The hearth stone itself can have greater significance than simply retaining fire; more prosaically, it can provide a necessary boundary between people and fire, as well as offering space on which to set pots and anything else that may need to dry or be kept warm. Immediately opposite the door, across the fire and probably only visible through smoke as you enter, lies the ‘dresser’. This was once interpreted as straightforward domestic shelving, but is now seen as something a little more complex, somewhere between an altar and show cupboard, depending on your views. To either side of the hearth are large stone compartments, interpreted as beds. In the earlier houses these are set back into the wall and bear a strong resemblance to the stone beds set into the walls of 17th century Orkney farmhouses. The assumption is that, as with the historic box bed in Orkney, they were slept in by several members of a family group at any one time. There are other features: stone-lined pits, a compartment for rubbish, a wall-cell, together these form the principal elements that made up a home for the Neolithic inhabitants of Orkney.
We assume that each individual house was inhabited by an extended family. In order for any group to survive in this restricted space, it is clear that rules must have existed and been carefully adhered to. This is common practice, measures like this develop in any society to stop us getting on top of one another as well as to maintain the social norms afforded to gender and age. They might seem a little harsh, but in reality we all adhere strictly to social convention with regard to our own homes: when visiting a friend, it is not ‘done’ to wander into their bedroom and shuffle through the drawers; we are careful in the sitting room; and offer to help in the kitchen. Think of the number of teenagers whose rooms become a haven set apart from the rigours of the adult world. I guess that a successful social norm is one that you hardly notice.
Yurts provide a good example of the deeper meaning that can reside within a house structure. Both Faegri, and Oliver in his book ‘Dwellings’, discuss the way in which the layout of the interior has come to represent the cosmos for those who inhabit them. Interestingly, both consider how the structure, though circular, incorporates hidden rectangles representing the four corners of the Earth (pages 92 – 93). These can be indicated by the placing of posts or significant furnishings as well as by the use of a substantial hearth stone. It is of course possible to determine a similar transformation at Skara Brae not only with the hearth and other fittings but between the straight-sided interior and the curved walls of the exterior. I’ve noted a similar feature: ‘the square inside the circle’, at other monuments here in Orkney, such as Barnhouse, as well as at sites like Stonehenge. Oliver notes the way in which this is a powerful motif in Buddhist symbolism, representing the male and the female in life. Today it is used by UNESCO to signify the duality between nature (the circle) and culture (the square).
Some find the houses at Skara Brae horribly uniform and impersonal. Yet many of our own housing estates demonstrate uniformity, especially those of the immediate post-war years, but it doesn’t mean that we live in an egalitarian utopia. This would be to forget people’s ability to decorate and alter. We see the mere stone bones of the houses. The Neolithic dweller had numerous ways to personalize their space. Archaeology is always simple and monochrome, but the creative had texture, colour, and shape to make use of. Hides, felt, wool itself, plant materials: the possibilities are (and were) endless.
The houses of Late Neolithic Orkney did not arise out of nothing, though some argue that they went on to influence Neolithic house-building across the UK. With the introduction of farming there were so many changes, including, perhaps, an initial and short-lived need for accommodation that suited slightly larger groups as evidenced by the aisled (or stalled) halls at sites like Crathes, that it is not surprising to see some change through the period. Colin Richards has recently devoted much effort to discussing the transformations that triggered the appearance of the familiar Skara Brae-type house. His argument encompasses a wider field than simple construction needs to consider social and cultural developments at the time and it is a compelling theory. Of course he is right to look beyond mere physical shape, but it is also interesting to note the general trend for ‘round houses’ that both precedes and follows the Neolithic. The structures at Skara Brae do seem complex in their detail in comparison to surviving Mesolithic and Bronze Age evidence, but it is hard to judge to what extent this is a factor of the medium in which they were built. The available slabs of Orcadian stone allow for the survival of detail which the average Mesolithic and Bronze Age house-builder can only envy.
So, what is my over-riding conclusion? Are these houses special and different? Where did they come from? I’d prefer to avoid applying our value-laden urban ideas of what might have been needed and how to achieve it. Our needs differ so greatly from those of the average farmer 5000 years ago. If anything, I’d see the Early Neolithic houses as indicative of the introduction of new ideas rather than the later ones. To my eye, the type of dwelling that we see at Skara Brae represents a clever blend of Early Neolithic design with previous norms of circularity.
Whatever its origin, I am convinced that it was simply ‘what you lived in’, if you happened to be among the farming community in Orkney 5000 years ago.
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!
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.
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…
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.
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.