The Bare Necessities

Food; warmth; shelter: these are the universal necessities for human life. But what about other, less tangible needs: social contact; mobility; forward planning? Life on the Pamir Plateau in 1988

I’ve often considered past lifestyles through the filter of the essential requirements of life. Food, heat, shelter – things like this remind me that we are not that different from the people of the past, we just have different ways of fulfilling our needs. Continue reading The Bare Necessities

Good Pictures

Any image has so much to say. The Mesolithic characters for Into the Wildwoods were drawn by Alex Leonard.

One of the really fun things about my work has been the opportunity to work with artists on reconstructions of the past. Usually, but not always, these have focussed on Mesolithic communities. I’ve been doing it for nearly 40 years, and it has been so interesting trying to bring the world of prehistory to life. I thought it Continue reading Good Pictures

Finding the right words

Cave painting.
Communication can be a complex business. Figure from the cave of El Castillo, Spain.

I love writing, I love playing with words to make them sound right and convey meaning. But I’ve become increasingly aware that the way I hear them inside my head, and the meanings I am trying to communicate, may not be same as the meanings and sounds received by those who read them. Continue reading Finding the right words

Difficult Decisions

Archaeological remains are fragile and have to be carefully managed. Sometimes there are hard decisions to be made. In Orkney, the Control Tower sits amidst the remains of the airfield at RNAS Twatt

Recent publicity about the road plans at Stonehenge have highlighted the difficult issues that face the archaeological manager in going about their job. I’m not going to comment on that particular case – there is plenty of online opinion Continue reading Difficult Decisions

Using your voice

The Barberellas in concert at the Stones of Stenness, Orkney. How did the original users of the monument sound?

A few months ago I  spent a week working on voice and communication with Kristin Linklater. It was a fascinating experience that got me thinking about all sorts of things. I never set out to be an academic (if, indeed, I am one). I was just Continue reading Using your voice

Lockdown Archaeology

What will the archaeologists of the future make of our present situation in lockdown? Will they even be able to see it? Excavation in progress on the Mesolithic site at Kinloch, Rum, in the 1980s.

I’ve been wondering about the archaeological footprint of the lockdown.

Right now, it impacts on everyone across the United Kingdom. No one is untouched by it. It is a big event globally. But will it be visible to archaeologists in a few centuries time – what about millennia? I’ve always been fascinated with Continue reading Lockdown Archaeology

Lost voices

The people of the past remain elusive no matter how much research we undertake. Nevertheless, some are brave, or foolhardy, enough to try to interpret past lives. It is important work (image shows Alex Leonard’s artwork for the cover of a nice teaching resource by Forestry and Land Scotland).

Reading the accounts of some excavations in Australia recently has made me rather melancholy. We have amassed a tremendous volume of data and investigation regarding the Mesolithic communities of Scotland. But something Continue reading Lost voices

Pandemic Phenomenology

Fishing in Lapland
Archaeology is about people in the past and their lived experience. But really, are any of us equipped to pontificate on that?

There is an archaeological method known as phenomenology. It is sometimes treated as a bit of a joke – being both difficult to spell and to pronounce, and consisting, as it does, of a consideration of the experiential aspect of monuments and landscapes. It has been critiqued (and I paraphrase), as the discipline of feeling the sand between your toes or the sun on your back. It is a hard technique to quantify, and current trends in archaeological investigation tend to prioritise quantification.

The coronavirus outbreak has got me thinking about phenomenology.

I’m wondering if it has not, just a little bit, exposed the arrogance of western societies in the twenty-first century. Why should we be immune to the public health scares that our ancestors endured? When you get cancer (and I have done that road trip), you are often told to embrace the attitude of ‘why should I be spared’. It is, apparently, healthier than getting angry over the fact that you have fallen foul of that particular condition. Actually, I never really found that it worked for me. But I am finding it useful, and interesting, to consider the ways in which previous communities struggled in the way that we are now struggling. Why should we be spared?

My ancestors, and yours, lived through the global outbreak of influenza just after the First World War. Down the centuries (and millennia before that) they had to deal with plague, smallpox, typhoid, and cholera. Amongst other things. They lived in a world where you could not take longevity for granted. They, collectively even if not individually, survived. Why should we be any different? I draw strength from their strength. Yet I think, perhaps, that we may have grown a little complacent.

The assumption of longevity that most of us enjoy today is a very modern luxury. It relies on cultural, social, geographical and financial factors. But few people stop to consider that. To start with, it assumes that we will always have enough to eat. There are still far too many around the world for whom that is not something to take for granted. It assumes that we will always have access to sophisticated healthcare. That is not a given either. It assumes that we live in a stable and peaceful political system. And it assumes that we will have continued financial security. Less than half of the world’s population fall into the category where these issues can all be taken for granted. And until very recently the difference between surviving and not-surviving was minute, even for our own predecessors.

Even for those of us who do take it for granted, the boundary between safety and crisis is in reality very thin. In actual fact it is transgressed every day. We choose to ignore that.

The link between the austerity measures practised in the UK and a rising death rate is easy to track. It has not stopped us practising austerity. Presumably because those who are most affected have little voice.

The descent into chaos of countries like Syria, Yemen, and various African States, caused by war and famine is on our news every night. We read how many modern asylum seekers and refugees are middle class professionals: doctors; nurses; teachers; engineers; and the like. People who were once defined by their profession and wish that were the case once more.

We are all, no matter how safe we feel, but a hair’s breadth away from slipping down the cracks in the world.

The coronavirus pandemic has shifted the boundaries to reveal just how close to the netherworld of chaos are all of us. I’m hoping that perhaps we will learn not to take things for granted, and even to be more supportive of those who, though no cause of their own, live life on the wrong side of the divide. Most of us in the west are still privileged enough to be able to hope (if not rely) that, in this instance, modern medical science will come to our aid.

But really, do we deserve to be any different from our grandparents? Or their grandparents?

Meanwhile, for the archaeologist, now is the time to do some serious phenomenology. None of that wandering around some scenic ancient monument in the sunshine before you head off to the nearest gastropub for a slap-up meal and a craft beer or two. Once this is over, try heading for your nearest stone circle or burial mound in the wind and rain once your toilet paper and food have run out and you are terrified that greeting your nearest and dearest will transmit a potentially fatal virus. Drop your rose-tinted spectacles and get to grips with the dark as well as the light side of the past.

Ancestral Piles

The remains at Skara Brae in Orkney evidence generations of Neolithic occupants. Was this family representation significant to Neolithic society? One author thinks so in his new book.

We have a very short-term relationship with material culture these days. Nothing lasts for long and we are ever keen to seek a new version, the most up to date model. It is true with regard to both our largest and our smallest possessions. The Continue reading Ancestral Piles