It is just over a year since I started writing this blog. I’ve been thinking about why I am still writing.
Actually, it is quite addictive. I love writing, I like crafting language, and I particularly like the way in which the blog allows me to write without rigid boundaries. Of course, there are norms, both social and academic which I try to follow. These include adding links to sites that I might mention and, obviously, crediting and linking to other material. I don’t have to worry about house-styles, specifics of grammar, or content, because I’m not bound by publishers or referees.
It is wonderfully liberating to be able to jot down my thoughts on topics that matter to me. And amazing that anyone likes to read them. It gets me thinking and encourages me to research topics that I might normally gloss over. I enjoy the challenge of trying to craft something sensible and vaguely interesting in a relatively short space. Occasionally someone will comment on something and occasionally the blog has led me down completely new and interesting routes. It has all been fun and I don’t intend to stop. I was surprised by how stressed I got recently when poor broadband restricted my ability to communicate online.
There are so many different ways in which one can communicate. I’m no artist, and definitely not a musician. My contact with fiction writers has taught me that I could never write a novel. I love lecturing, but it is a more limited format. Many years ago I presented a radio programme on local archaeology: that was fun, but it was a lot more work than the blog. I spent a couple of days this summer working with a camera crew for the BBC – that was fun too, but I’m not sure I’m a natural; it is quite stressful trying to say the right thing with the right emphasis, enthusiasm, and facial expression. In academic writing I struggle to use the correct jargon. This is mainly because I hate jargon – if you are trying to communicate with the world, then it just seems lazy not to take the trouble to explain something in a way that everyone can understand. It seems I’m not alone in thinking like this, I have recently discovered the Rounded Globe publishing house which aims to produce freely available, jargon free, scholarly texts. If you have not visited their website – have a look.
I do love writing popular books and articles, but they can be time consuming and you are bound by the strictures of your editor and publishing house.
So, I’m left with the free-style blog.
I’m lucky to live in an era when internet technology not only allows me the means to reproduce my work for free, but also to export it around the world. If I have an overriding theme, it has to be the way in which the world of the past continues to touch on my own life. When I visit the Neolithic sites of Orkney I wonder about those who produced the carefully incised designs that one sees on so many of the stones at sites like Ness of Brodgar. Those who carved them, too, were communicating. Perhaps they loved it just as much as I do. We have long lost the lexicon and the grammar by which to understand their work. Maybe it was only ever intended for a few, maybe it was more general. Those who carved the Viking runes in Maeshowe seem to have thought that they would be understood by many. Those who produced the carefully illustrated Christian gospels knew that they would only be read by a few and that a ‘translator’ would be needed in order for their work to be appreciated by the general populace. I wonder how any of these people would feel were they to know that their communications are now the subject of study so many years later. Time, it seems, is the one element where my predecessors have the advantage of me. Somehow, I feel there is less chance that my ‘wisdom’ will be the subject of such interest in 3016.
I’ve always been keen to promote archaeology to a wide audience. As such one can only be happy to see archaeological material being presented in a variety of popular media such as television, books and radio.
How sad, therefore, to hear a popular account of archaeology on Start the Week on Radio Four this week that was very misleading. My problems relate to the description of Britain in 9700 BC and thereabouts: Northern Britain under glaciers; tundra to the south and a landscape devoid of human settlement; Doggerland as a landbridge; the characterisation of the Scottish coast by raised beaches; and, of course, the tsunami that cut us off from the continent. Apart from the tsunami, it all sounded very drab. Of course, it pressed all my buttons for it is a period about which I feel passionately.
Most of my complaints relate to language and I know that makes me pedantic. But we are talking radio here, if language is not important then what is. To say that northern Britain was under glaciers in 9700 BC may be technically correct (though they were diminishing) but these were the re-advancing ice coverage of the Younger Dryas (sometimes known in Scotland as the Loch Lomond Stadial) and are more commonly referred to as ‘small ice caps’, rather than the full blown glacial cover. Similarly, to talk about the coastline of Scotland as characterised by post-glacial raised beaches is a gross over-simplification that owes more to the school books of my childhood than to current research. There are places, like Orkney, where the post-glacial coastline is characterised by the submergence of landscape.
To hear Doggerland described as an isthmus, a landbridge, or a plain always upsets me. The area of Doggerland in the Early Holocene is still based on fairly general models, but even these suggest that it was a considerable landmass. It is likely to have been bigger than several of the smaller European countries today, including England. I don’t think that is an isthmus. Low-lying plains? I do accept that on a chat show one does not have time to explore the nuances of current archaeological research. But the work on Doggerland is hardly new and shows clearly that it comprised rather more than the undulating landscape I caught in my mind’s eye as I listened. There are many people working on Doggerland and they include artists interested in ‘re-naming’ it as well as geoscientists interested in ‘re-wilding’ it. No one, perhaps, has done more than Vince Gaffney and his team to highlight the glories of Doggerland and its topography: lakes; hills; rivers; marshes, it is all there and now they are working to elucidate the animals and vegetation. Maybe it is just me, but I don’t see Doggerland as a landbridge, I see it as a country. For me Doggerland is exciting, full of promise, and a glimpse to a past where Britain takes its rightful place as a part of Europe.
Britain abandoned: the human occupation of Britain has a long and venerable history going back almost a million years and, yes, there are times when it is thought that people may have been absent. But not in recent times, and for me that includes anything from fifteen thousand years ago. Sites may be few and far between, but they are there. The last ‘Upper Palaeolithic’ hunters based their stone tool assemblages on long blades, and we are beginning to recognise related industries from sites across Britain from north-west Scotland and Orkney to, of course, the south. Scientific dates are still sometimes elusive but, where they are lacking, fairly accurate parallels may be drawn on the basis of dated sites elsewhere and these show good evidence for long-blade based activity in England by 11,500 BC and in Scotland around 11,000 BC. By 9000 BC things are really taking off: there is, for example, evidence of the sophisticated use of the landscape of the Vale of Pickering in Yorkshire with people at sites like Star Carr building houses and platforms and making use of those wonderful deer masks in hunting and other rituals. For me this is an exciting time: small groups are making their way in a rich landscape. Their culture is rich with meaning and possibility, building on a venerable ancestry to make the most of the world they encounter.
The power of the tsunami. Yes, of course, the Storegga Slide and associated tsunami were powerful events, transforming and treacherous for those who got in their path. But, the modelling that suggested (a while ago now) that the tsunami had washed away the last vestiges of Doggerland, was very generalised and simply showed that low lying coastal land would have been vulnerable. It is hardly rocket science. In reality, Doggerland had been diminishing for millennia before that. The tsunami provides a convenient shorthand for the loss of Doggerland, but I suspect that its real power lies among modern archaeologists rather than the people of the past. The population of Doggerland had a high degree of mobility, many were seafarers, all understood the landscape and held the inherent flexibility they needed to survive. They lived in a changing world; for them, change was the norm and they knew how to survive. The tsunami was a disaster, but Doggerland was already disappearing and would have been lost with or without the Storegga Slide. For me the tsunami is a distraction: I try to avoid it in lectures, but, usually, the first question will be along the lines of: ‘you didn’t mention the tsunami, but…’. Arghhh.
The final point to be made was that the geography of Britain, and the geographical processes to which the land is subject, make it inevitable that the south, specifically the south-east, should be the centre of things. It would be easy to think this, if the archaeology did not suggest otherwise. There is no evidence for any geographical ‘preferencing’ prior to around 3500 BC, except to say that populations in the north seem to have had their own roots and these roots may not always have been the same as those of the populations in the south. By 3500 BC the economic basis of life across Britain has shifted to farming and, curiously, current evidence suggests that something happens in the north to springboard a series of developments in cultural and social life which spread, pretty quickly, southwards. So the north had it first. Some might see this influence as culminating in the construction of monuments like Avebury and Stonehenge. Only after this do we begin to see the increasing social power of the south and it is a long time before it extends fully to encompass the north. My own hunch is that this power shift is related, among other things, to the increasing importance of external contacts and the way in which the proximity (and ease of access) to the continent allowed society in the south to develop.
For me the programme was interesting. It clearly got me thinking, and it is good to hear archaeology ‘out there’, but the content was sadly old fashioned. I can’t be the only one to find the period fascinating. The number of research projects taking place and pushing knowledge forward suggests that I’m not. There is new stuff to read, and it is always worth reading it.
Maybe the guests were just having a bad morning on Radio Four on Monday, but I was sad to hear them painting such a depressing view of our ancestors and the world in which they lived. It is a shame when popular science is out of date. If we are going to do it, we need to do it properly. I do understand that I’m biased, but for me the landscape of Doggerland and the lives of the Late Glacial and Early Mesolithic communities of Britain are full of wonderful, colourful, promise.
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.
I’ve been spending some time recently with a group of folk who have traveled to Orkney in order to tour the archaeological sites. In this particular case, I’ve had the opportunity (and fun), of guiding the group around Orkney and talking (perhaps too much) about the sites. Of course, one of the highlights was our visit to the Ness of Brodgar in order to see the excavation work taking place and the slow revealing of the site. It got me thinking about our motives for travel and I wondered whether they really differ so much from those of the communities who visited places like the Ness of Brodgar in the past.
In many cases, visitors travel considerable distances to reach Orkney (and my group was no exception). Orkney archaeology has always been popular but as word of the archaeology here has spread around the globe so more and more people arrive. In general, they are keen to experience the sites at first hand, to walk round them, and to learn more about the live-styles of those who originally built and used them. This can be a complex, even daunting, process. The remains that survive from the past look very different to the houses and structures that we are familiar with today and in many ways our lives bear little comparison with those of our ancestors. At first glance one might be forgiven for thinking how boring it all was – there is little colour or noise; everything seems to have comprised drab, silent, shades of stone. It seems very strange, very alien. But of course, it was not really like that at all; we are all people at heart whether we live today or in the past. Human beings have a wonderful facility for personalizing space, for finding colour and for creating sound.
But our connection with the sites that we visit is about more than understanding. It is also about attitude. Modern travel allows us to dip in and out of a range of cultures and landscapes that would have been unthinkable 500 years ago, never mind 5000 years ago. The Internet and Social Media mean that we arrive well prepared with information and, once settled, we can share our experience through images and words with a wide community of friends and acquaintances.
Are we really so very different in this to our prehistoric ancestors? They too, traveled to reach sites like the stone circles, sometimes (like us) journeying a day or more (if by different means) from their home village. They too, got to know strangers, became accustomed to different ways and clothes, tried out new foods, learnt new things, and visited iconic sites. They too had stories to share when they got home. We don’t know what, precisely, went on at the Neolithic stone circles of Orkney, or at sites like Ness of Brodgar; we are fairly certain that the activities involved communal get-togethers. They may have taken place at significant times of the year, they may have involved people from a number of separate villages, some may have travelled considerable distance, and what you came for may have varied in detail depending on specific requirements and times of the year. Or not.
In many cases these journeys seem akin to some sort of pilgrimage: defined by Wikipedia as ‘a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance’. They provided a sense of fulfillment for those who undertook them and helped them to make sense of, and to feel secure in, their world. That is precisely how I see our modern visits to these places. These are powerful locations and many visitors speak of ‘the atmosphere’. Heritage has become a significant asset for the twenty-first century. It helps us to root ourselves in place and community and to feel that we belong and have always belonged. Consider the role of travel and sight-seeing in our society. We love to tick off sites (particularly if included in some sort of list: ‘The 100 Best Sites’; ‘World Heritage’; ‘Remote Places’). We use photos to confirm our presence and validate the ‘specialness’ of the experience. Some like to theme their journeys, whether to sacred sites, Christmas Markets, or wilderness. Others are more eclectic. There is social prestige, and interest, to be gained in becoming a seasoned traveller.
Our horizons may be physically wider than those of our ancestors, but mentally they are little changed. Our technology may be more advanced, but there is little difference in its mental impact. Our trips to the stone circles of Orkney, or anywhere else, rest on the same foundations as those of the prehistoric communities who made similar journeys five thousand years ago. When I’m at the Ring of Brodgar, or exploring the Stones of Stenness, I share a purpose with those who were there in the past. I’m validating the place of the monument in the world of today: my world. That is what my recent guests were doing. And that, I feel, is exactly what my prehistoric forebears were doing.
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.
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
I was writing about developments in the use of sound as an interpretive, and even investigative, tool in archaeology. It is nice to see archaeology diverging from the relatively narrow way in which it has presented itself in the past. I know that academic writing is an important means to communicate quality assured research, but personally, I find writing popular accounts much more fun.
Both academic and popular archaeology contain narrative – the stories that we weave to make sense of our views. Narrative has been important throughout human history. It predates the written word, of course. Today we pay attention to the way in which it is delivered and this affects how we receive it. Academic writing is meaningful and trusted. Popular writing is often looked down on a bit, though it may actually be easier to read and understand. Television – well, we are often not so sure, nowadays we are frequently concerned that it might be ‘dumbed down’ a bit, depending on the channel? The Internet, curiously, has seen a swing in the opposite direction – from the realm of doubtful validity ten years ago, we have grown to trust many websites and even use them as a reliable source of information. Storytellers, we tend to regard as the least reliable, presumably on the grounds that they make up their stories. Yet they have the most honourable antiquity.
There was a time when the Storyteller was a valued and significant member of society. In many societies storytellers have been responsible for both the education of the young and for the keeping of communal history. Consider the Norse Sagas. They originally comprised oral tales, tales for the telling on long dark nights, sure, but also tales that provided valuable information about past events, people and distant places. This information was vital for the next generation to ensure that the way they went about things was informed by past understanding. And to help prepare them for new places and new situations. And yet, we are hazy about many of those who composed the sagas, how many of them there were, where they lived and so on. A few are mentioned, some we know by name, but there must have been many others who contributed.
In most cases, it seems, the stories were more important than those who wrote them. How different things are today! The cult of the celebrity writer often obscures our appreciation of the text. In academic writing, the use of jargon often obscures the meaning of the text. I’m all for jargon as a convenient shorthand to avoid having to explain everything – what an oxbow lake is, or the package that we call ‘Neolithic’, for example, but I hate it when it is used to dress up poorly thought through argument as something deeply meaningful. Too often jargon can be lazy and duplicitous. I’ve always felt that people should not have to work to understand my text. If an examiner, or book reviewer, finds it easy to appreciate what I want to say, then, in general, I find that they usually like my work more.
I’d like to get back to a world where good stories were valued whatever the means by which they were delivered. Academic writing has its place, but it is not the only way in which to communicate our work. Other methods reach a wider audience and they are just as significant.
I have a problem and I am not sure how to resolve it.
How do we ensure that the papers that we publish present the most up-to-date information and analysis?
Academic publication meets strict standards, one of which requires that papers, once submitted, are sent to referees (usually two) who read the paper, check that the research is up-to-date, comment on the significance, and note any omissions, errors or muddled writing. Most people will ask a colleague or two to read a paper before submission – it is better to find out about weaknesses at this point in my opinion.
I’ve acted as a referee myself on frequent occasions and I hope my comments are useful. When the journal allows it, I prefer my name to be known to the authors (though I may not know who they are), because it will allow them to understand my point of view, and if necessary check the precise meaning of my comments. I don’t really believe in saying things that I’d not discuss with someone face to face.
In general, I find that the comments of referees on my papers always result in stronger papers. They see things from a wider point of view than I do because they have not been bound up with a particular project for the previous months (or years); they highlight things that, while obvious to me, are not obvious to others; they point out areas where my writing is unclear; and they are great at suggesting references that I have overlooked. It might be annoying to have to unpick your writing once you think you have signed it off, but in the end it is worthwhile.
But – I am sure you can hear a ‘but’ coming…
But, just once in a while it all goes wrong and that shakes my faith in the system. I had a paper a while ago that was refereed by three people (I’m not sure why that was, it is the first time I’ve come across it, but perhaps that is the new standard). Curiously, each identified totally different weaknesses in the paper. The optimistic side of me would see that as a validation that my point of view, while not everyone’s, did not contain any total howlers. Unfortunately, that is not how journal editors work: they tend to be more negative so that in this case it merely tripled the weaknesses.
You can see their point: except that in many instances these particular referees disagreed with each other. One thought that the stone tools might be particularly early, another was disappointed that I had not explored the possibility that they represented a survival of that technology into late prehistory. In actual fact there is no evidence in Scotland for the early or late instance of this technique at all, though I suppose if we were hidebound we would never discover anything new. One was concerned that I had not undertaken a Bayesian analysis of the (poorly contexted) radiocarbon dates; this raised the vision of Patrick Ashmore who taught me so much about the unreliability of dates based on uncertain contexts, something that I’m not sure even the most sophisticated of Bayesian work can remedy. I could go on, but I think you get my point.
Of course, it is possible to argue your case with an editor, but in my experience this is rarely successful; editors tend to assign academic precedence to referees rather than authors, even when it is the latter who have been studying a particular subject or site. And, I always have that niggling feeling – ‘what if they are right’. Having my work questioned makes me doubt myself. I know I should be more resilient, but my inclination is to go through the comments and try to cover each one in text. This might lead to some strange discussion of issues that most people would not regard as relevant, but it does make everything blindingly obvious. Sometimes the level of detail is such that one is left with the lurking feeling that you should have added the referees as co-authors.
Being a referee is a big commitment. For every journal there is an army of unpaid referees, reading, thinking and commenting. We have to thank them. But it is not a perfect system. Occasionally there are scores to be paid; or simply the desire to let off steam after you have had to deal with some picky referee yourself; sometimes arms are twisted to referee something where you really don’t have the expertise. Usually, these things show up and, of course, that is the reason that the double referee system has been developed. But as long as editors bow to the referee’s opinion without any thought, then the system is flawed.
I’m not sure how to improve it. We need to ensure academic excellence. But I’m coming across more and more examples of refereeing that is somehow not quite working. I’m hoping that with more open dialogue we might be able to return to the system where the referees work to ensure the significance and quality of publications, without rewriting them on behalf of the authors.