Thoughts on Ness of Brodgar

My favourite spot at Ness of Brodgar, the paving outside structures one and eleven and the passage way running between the two.
My favourite spot at Ness of Brodgar, the paving outside structures one and eleven and the passageway running between the two.

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

House and home

Camp on the Pamir plateau, 1988. Those who live in houses such as this often abide by strict social norms.

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.

The State that Looks After Its Past

Ring of Brodgar

The stone circle at the Ring of Brodgar is a popular place for locals and tourists alike; entry is free.

My local newspaper, the Orcadian, recently ran an article about possible plans for Historic Environment Scotland (HES) to hand over the operation of the 33 HES sites in Orkney (including the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae) to the care of local Council as a result of funding problems. This was, of course, strenuously denied by HES, though they did say:

We are exploring options for managing site access at Maeshowe, as visitors currently have to cross a busy main road to get to the site and the safety of our visitors and staff is paramount.

Our board recently considered a proposal, and wish to discuss the project further with Orkney Islands Council when our new chief executive arrives in September.

We are reviewing short-term options at present… Any short-term impact on access to the site will not have any effect on jobs in Orkney or anywhere else in Historic Environment Scotland’. (HES Spokesperson, quoted in The Orcadian, 11.08.16, page 1).

This little story, albeit hidden within the pages of a very local newspaper, rings alarm bells with me.

Continue reading The State that Looks After Its Past

The Power of One

north sea flint
Illustration of the North Sea flint by Alan Braby. Can we really postulate the population of an extensive landmass on the basis of one, small, artefact?

Publication of the tanged point from Brodgar, Orkney, by Torben Bjarke Ballin and Hein Bjartmann Bjerck in the Journal of Lithic Studies has made me ponder on our attitude to isolated finds. The authors suggest that this flint arrowhead adds weight to the body of evidence for Palaeolithic activity in Scotland. To understand the significance of this you have to realise that tanged points occupy a semi mythological status in Scotland, adding apparent weight to elusive evidence for the earliest human activity in the country.

This particular piece was originally published (with two others from separate sites) as Palaeolithic by Livens in 1956, but as it was subsequently lost it has been impossible to investigate his claims. Recently, however, it has been rediscovered, mis-catalogued, in the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow (have a look at it here).

When I studied archaeology, the idea that Scotland had an antiquity that stretched back to the Mesolithic was considered doubtful for the north – to suggest even older occupation during the Palaeolithic was truly daring. I’m happy to say that we now have a respectable number of tanged points from various sites across Scotland, and, though none comes with an associated in-situ assemblage, there is increasing evidence for activity during the Palaeolithic, including the on-going excavation by Steven Mithen and Karen Wicks of an Ahrensburgian type assemblage at Rubha Port an t-Seilich on the west-coast island of Islay.

But, how much evidence is evidence? Single finds, from any other period (and perhaps in any other place) would rarely be considered compelling. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a great fan of the single find – a good part of my archaeological reputation has been built on a single find; one that sits in stately isolation in an even greater landscape than the Brodgar point. In 1986 I co-authored publication of a small and insignificant scraper that has since become known as ‘the North Sea Flint’. It was found below some 134m of sea water in the upper sediments of a core recovered during oil prospection roughly half way between Shetland and Norway. At first we toyed with the idea that this represented some prehistoric tragedy as a lone fisherman was swept out to sea and drowned. Or perhaps it had been lost from the hand of a Victorian collector, proudly displaying it to friends on board a North Sea steamer. Soon we realized that the location from which it had been retrieved would have been dry land and available for settlement towards the end of the last great Ice Age. So, we postulated the early population of a whole land mass (later to be named Doggerland by Bryony Coles) on the basis of a single flint. There were, at the time, no other finds from the northern part of Doggerland and though in recent years there is increasing evidence from the southern North Sea, the northern section is still, largely, unexplored.

core with North Sea flint
Core from the northern North Sea with the flint scraper showing clearly in the sandy deposits to the left

There are many reasons why archaeological evidence might be thin on the ground for the Upper Palaeolithic in Scotland. Population density was small and communities were highly mobile. Some sites may have been short lived; some may not have resulted in the deposition of artefactual material. Much of what we know about the communities elsewhere in north west Europe suggests that people were at home on the plains, following and hunting herds such as reindeer. Scotland, with its mountainous terrain was right at the edge of the territory in which they were most comfortable. And, of course, it was a long, long time ago: sites have been affected by a multitude of geomorphological and taphonomic processes since then which will have worked to dismantle the evidence.

So, perhaps we should congratulate ourselves on the way in which our archaeological skills have been honed to the extent that we can recognise and recover any evidence at all, patchy though it is. But I’m not sure about this. There is a good Palaeolithic record from England and Wales and I don’t think archaeologists there make excuses for a paucity of sites. No one nowadays doubts that groups of Upper Palaeolithic hunters did roam across Scotland (or I don’t think they do). So, what is going on? Perhaps we should start by looking at the way in which we undertake our Palaeolithic investigation. Or rather, perhaps we should consider the way in which we don’t do it. ScARF highlighted the problems with finding and managing sites that comprise mainly stone tools and they were focussing on the Mesolithic. I don’t think we have come to terms at all with the possibility that there might actually be a Palaeolithic record here.

Until we do we shall continue to idolize the power of one, by creating a Palaeolithic that is truly ‘join-the-dots’ archaeology as we try to (re)create whole landscape(s), with chronological and geographical depth, out of isolated finds and occasional serendipitous scatters of broken and abandoned flints.