The Cornflakes of Prehistory

mince pies
Mince pies are a good example of how value laden a food can be. On the surface merely small pastry covered pies and yet to those who celebrate at this time of the year it is hard to see a pile of mince pies without evoking strong emotional feelings. We are letting our imagination add to the physical evidence.

I much enjoyed the recent session on Archaeology and Fiction at TAG (the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference). Discussion was stimulated by a variety of papers from archaeological authors, illustrators, playwrights and poets – among others.

I attempted to look at the nature of truth in archaeological writing. I’m not the first to do this, it is an old conundrum that we rarely appreciate just how much imagination we use when we interpret the data that we are so highly trained to collect. And, of course, we can also question the objective nature of that data: the eye of the beholder and all that! I don’t think it does any harm to revisit this debate; it helps us to remain humble about the so-called academic wisdom that we all wish to produce.

It struck me how much our values have changed. As a profession I think we can be quite snobby about the ‘value’ of archaeological novels as opposed to archaeological textbooks. Yet I’d lay a wager that the novels reach a larger audience. One of the things I do for a living is to read the works of aspiring novelists and provide guidance on the archaeological settings and data that they use. Occasionally fellow archaeologists have been quite surprised at this, and yet, if we do not take the time to work with those who popularize the results of archaeology, then we certainly have no right to question their final output. Not everyone writes novels that I’d read out of choice, but everyone has an audience and everyone has the right to publish. The past is not for archaeologists to guard. If our academic texts are not immediately user friendly then we have a duty to help out.

It is interesting that in the past we gave status to storytellers, those who constructed stories to inform us about the world around us. In recent centuries this has lessened. We have diminished the didactic power of fiction and increased the distance between fiction and fact (look at the relative values of ‘academic’ papers and ‘popular’ writings in the recent REF evaluation of universities). It is salutary to realise that they used to be one and the same.

Academic narrative is no more factual just because it is academic than popular narrative is fictional just because it is popular. Archaeological fact is indeed the foundation of all interpretation whether academic or popular but it is what we do with it that matters. It is just the springboard for what must follow and without interpretation it is sterile. That interpretation is the job of the storyteller (for which read illustrator, game-maker, film producer and so on).

Excavation can give us a bowl. It can even give us traces of cornflakes. But it requires interpretation (and imagination) to combine them into breakfast. And even more imagination to communicate to others the significance of that breakfast to the people who ate it.

Whatever breakfasts your Yuletide rituals demand – I hope you have a merry time and a well-earned break over the next couple of weeks.

December sunrise Orkney
Solstice sunrise. December 2015, Orkney.

 

Archaeological Fiction

With the imminent arrival of TAG I have been thinking about Archaeological Fiction. Has anyone else been enjoying The Last Kingdom on BBC Two? A friend described it as a guilty pleasure. There is no reason why the pleasure of watching TV should be guilty, but I think there is a bit more to The Last Kingdom than mindless relaxation. I’m sure it is full of horrible anachronisms, but it raises some interesting points. The details are more nuanced in the books, but that does not mean that the television series is not worth watching.

First of all there is the depiction of two competing groups living in a single landscape. How do you tell people apart? How do they use the landscape? How do different languages and religions work? How do groups view one another? Secondly there is the depiction of the Christian church struggling to establish and maintain its place within Saxon society. This raises all sorts of questions relating to new influences and new ways: the role of women; education; medicine; food; religion and politics; and religion and language – all of these come into the story. Thirdly, there is the sheer level of violence in the world: how did one maintain economic stability when passing horsemen might burn your farmstead and kill your folks on a frequent basis; how does it affect people to live in a world where extreme violence is commonplace?

Obviously, this is a period about which I know very little – certainly not enough to pronounce on the accuracy of the depiction. But for me the interest lies not so much in the details as in the questions. You could regard it as science fiction, although the details are subtler than in Star Wars many of the questions are the same. It has got me thinking. For me it is a reminder that the stability and unity that we seek so urgently today have always been elusive. It turns my mind to the end of Mesolithic Britain, another great time of clashing cultures. What was it like to live then? Was it violent as some people suggest? There have been so many periods when the landscape of Britain was home to differing and distinctive peoples. Are we unique today in seeking a cosy homeland where all agree?

Finally, I do return to the detail. How on earth did the programme makers manage to find an actor who looked so like the Alfred Jewell?

The alfred Jewell
The Alfred Jewell as depicted on the Ashmolean Museum website
Alfred
Alfred, played by David Dawson, as depicted by BBC Two

The Interdisciplinary Nature of Mesolithic Research

Excavations at Rum in the 1980s
Excavation in progress at Kinloch, Rum in the 1980s. does the lack of evidence on a Mesolithic site force us to adapt our research to include a wide range of complimentary studies?

I recently attended a fabulous archaeological meeting in Argyll. Some 70 participants, a mix of professional and community archaeologists, spent two days discussing the finer points of the archaeology of the area, from the earliest times to recent remains. Set amidst the wonderful landscape of the Kilmartin Glen, it was a privilege to be able to devote the time to unpicking the finer points of the archaeology and history of this remarkable area.

I learnt a lot, not least because the format of the meeting meant that everyone participated in everything, even outside our usual period specialisations. This meant that each period benefitted from some alternative points of view. It also meant that I was forced to consider the archaeology of periods about which I know little. Not surprisingly, there was more overlap than I originally expected.

Surprises and differences were also evident, however. During a consideration of historical evidence, I was startled to find myself embroiled in a passionate discussion as to whether we should embrace interdisciplinary projects. To me this is a no brainer. How can we ever understand our ancestors properly, if we don’t understand the world in which they lived? We need to research vegetation, relative sea-level change, and geology, among other things, if we want to gain a full picture of that world. Indeed, the rise of specialist analysis is adding almost monthly to the suite of aspects that we can learn about the people of the past. Who would have thought that the study of isotopes might reveal so much, or that detailed DNA material might be available in sediments?

It was shocking to realise that there are people for whom the study of the material culture of the past is sufficient in isolation. I wonder why this is? Does the lack of material culture in the Mesolithic mean that we have been forced to look more broadly in order to justify ourselves? Perhaps, it is because the lives of those who inhabited Mesolithic Scotland were intertwined so closely with the world around them that we take that into account in our studies. And yet, the geographical nature of Scotland today is fundamental to an understanding of our own lives.

I appreciate now why so many grant forms spell out that they like to receive applications that comprise interdisciplinary studies. It is not obvious to everyone. These differences in how we do archaeology are fascinating. We think that we are all part of one broad profession, and yet at meetings like this we become aware of the different paths that we each follow. Sadly, one side effect of the increasing availability of specialist analyses is that it is becoming less common for one meeting to embrace a wide range of those disciplines that go together to make up our understanding of the past.

Talking of which, I took part in an archaeology podcast earlier in the autumn with Kim Biddulph of the Archaeology Podcast Network and Spencer Carter, another Mesolithic aficionado. We were discussing the use of fiction to interpret the Mesolithic and you can eavesdrop on our conversation here.

 

Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Scotland in a nutshell

Structural remains from Rum
Elusive remains of Mesolithic structures from the excavations at Kinloch, Rum, drawn by Alan Braby.

I’ve been asked to provide a five-minute summary of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Scotland. It is an interesting exercise, but it is difficult. I’ve not done it entirely to my satisfaction, but here is the ten-minute version!

The period between 14,000 and 6000 years ago was a time of considerable environmental transformation. Change was very much the norm for those who lived in Scotland at the end of the Palaeolithic and into the Mesolithic.

Perhaps the main transformation was the ending of the last great Ice Age and in some ways all things lead from this so we need to understand it. Another, relevant to the mobile hunter-gatherers of northwest Europe, was the generally rising sea-levels that led to the loss of Doggerland. But to highlight these masks a dynamic world that encompassed a wide range of change, all of which was relevant to the communities seeking to survive in Scotland – we can’t separate people from their environment. When considering human activity at any time we have to be fully aware of the world in which people lived and of the long-term and short-term challenges they faced. Among the relevant challenges for this period are the climatic deterioration known as the 8.2 ka cold event, which had widespread impact including a drop in temperature, increased windiness, and decreasing rainfall, though it was short and sharp – lasting for around two hundred years.

It is also important to remember that broadscale accounts mask specific events such as bad winters, droughts, winds and storm surges, and we do need to hold these in mind because it is precisely these events that impact upon the lives of individual communities. The single event that has received perhaps the most attention in recent years is the tsunami associated with the Storegga Slide. Dated with increasing precision to around 6150 BC it would have had devastating impact. Tsunami deposits have been found at heights over 20m in Shetland and it is likely that there was a knock on effect everywhere, compounded by the fact that it was unpredictable and occurred during the height of the 8.2 ka cold event.

Moving to the people: the inhabitation of Scotland during the Late Glacial has been a matter of some debate characterised by increasing evidence from finds of stone tools, of periodic human activity prior to the Younger Dryas (the re-establishment of glacial conditions between roughly 10,500 BC – 9700 BC), and culminating in the on-going excavation by Steven Mithen and Karen Wicks of an Ahrensburgian type assemblage (about 12,000 years old) from Rubha Port an t-Seilich on the west-coast island of Islay. The precise arrival of Mesolithic communities in Scotland is equally shrouded in uncertainty. We follow the stone tools because they have survived but do we always understand them? Broad blade microlith technologies of a type used to identify the earliest Mesolithic communities in England do occur in Scotland but they are rare and, as yet, not securely dated so that interpretation of the activity that led to them is weak. Narrow blade microlith technologies are more common and, in general, may be dated from the mid ninth millennium BC onward. Setting aside the theoretical weaknesses of equating tool technology with cultural community, the overall picture is one of increasing evidence for hunter-gatherer groups, and probable diversity between communities, from this period onwards.

A challenging aspect of the evidence for Mesolithic Scotland is the way in which the majority of sites are coastal, and we have to ask ourselves whether this reflects archaeological reality? The existing evidence suggests the presence of highly specialised communities well able to exploit the marine and littoral resources, and for whom water-born transport may have facilitated coastal mobility, but how much did they penetrate the uplands? We assume they did: emerging data illustrates the use of the montane interior even during times of climatic stress such as the 8.2 ka event. Are these the same groups? In some places it may well be that a single group made use of a particular river system, but in other areas research suggests that separate coastal and inland groups existed.

One aspect is notable: the growing evidence for structural remains excavated over the last 30 years. Much has been made of the traces of post-built circular structures that are interpreted as semi-permanent. In Scotland these occur within the ninth millennium BC, though that at Mount Sandel in the north of Ireland has recently been re-dated to the early eighth millennium BC. They seem to have been in use during a time of stable climatic conditions, yet at a time when relative sea-level change (and concomitant land loss) was likely to have been most rapid. Their occupation occurs prior to the 8.2 ka cold event and to the Storegga tsunami. Many, but not all, occur in close proximity to the present coast.

These structures are not the only evidence we have for Mesolithic habitation however, other remains include light shelters and foundation slots. They occur across Scotland from Orkney to the Solway Firth. Most are found near to the coast (perhaps reflecting the evidence in general), but inland sites are being discovered (most recently at high altitude in the Cairngorms). With the exception of the site at Morton (where the interpretation is difficult), all yielded narrow blade microliths. Many sites have early dates, back to some of the earliest evidence for the Mesolithic in Scotland, but there are sites with later dates such as Cnoc Coig, though in general the later Mesolithic archaeology is less well represented and less well understood. On some sites a combination of different structural remains has been recovered.

Interpretation of the more robust structures has proved challenging to Mesolithic archaeologists seeking to validate paradigms of a mobile society. One solution has been to tie them to evidence of environmental instability; are they associated with increased competition for resources as the Doggerland landmass diminished? Actually I think it is more likely that they are a result of stability. Be that as it may, if we wish to create a more complete understanding of this period then it is necessary to consider all the evidence and not select specific ‘interesting’ elements.

Physical evidence apart – what about the people? There is very, very little skeletal evidence for Mesolithic Scotland. So, how many people were there? Estimation of population size where the archaeological record is demonstrably patchy is fraught with difficulty. In 1962 Atkinson suggested a total population for Scotland of about 70, but this has long been considered an underestimate. Tolan-Smith suggested that by the end of the seventh millennium BC population had reached maximum carrying capacity, but he does not actually say how he calculated this, nor give any numbers. More recently Wicks and Mithen have tackled the problem in a different way, using radiocarbon dates as a proxy; they don’t provide absolute numbers either, but their work is interesting because by postulating the possible reduction of population in western Scotland during, and after, the 8.2 ka cold event they are suggesting that population density was large enough to be challenged by the deterioration in environmental conditions.

To close, it is very easy to present the Mesolithic as some sort of utopia. But we have to be wary of this. We are dealing with a long period, a long time ago. Ethnographic work on hunter-gatherers should remind us that there is no average community, no average territory and no average life-style. Nevertheless, what we do see is that life as a hunter-gatherer is finely balanced. Sophisticated knowledge of the environment is weighed against all sorts of issues such as population density, environmental stability, and mobility in order to build a viable long-term lifestyle. This can be knocked out of kilter. Change, in any one part of the system, invariably affects all other aspects. It is an exciting aspect of modern archaeological studies that rather than simply gathering data we can now start to play around and look at elements such as this. We assume that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were consummate survivors (how else would we be here), life was undoubtedly difficult, but we have started to see examples of adaption and that is very gratifying.

High Fashion – Meso Style

Mesolithic Life in Orkney as imagined by Dominic Andrews
Artist Dominic Andrews made this reconstruction of Mesolithic Life for the Mesolithic room at the Tomb of the Eagles Heritage Centre in Orkney. He spent a long time discussing the details and I love it! As you can see we went for some serious clothing.

Last week I was alerted to a new publication on the Mesolithic, namely a little booklet about Mesolithic Teesside. You can download it for free.

It is a nice piece of work that discusses a wide range of things with lots of great illustrations. It introduces the reader to the concept of the Mesolithic and some of the ways in which we collect data about the period. The problems of researching a period in which settlements were often transitory and the material culture was by-and-large made of organic materials that have long since disappeared are well presented. There is a good introduction to the environment in which our Mesolithic ancestors lived, including past changes in relative sea-level and to the natural world which provided the resources from which people lived. Everything is related to local sites and there is information about sites and locations that would once have been considered obscure such as the fish trap from Seaton Carew and the submerged landscape there.

Of course, there are bits with which I take issue such as the description of Doggerland as a land bridge, or the confusion of tsunami and tidal wave, but these are minor in relation to the overall value of the booklet as a whole. Given the general invisibility of the Mesolithic in recent archaeology it is just brilliant to see something like this, which discusses such a wide range of information in clear well illustrated text and relates it to a specific area. All for free!

One aspect of the booklet in particular got me thinking. The cover is a striking image of a Mesolithic family set against local cliffs. It is very twee and clearly views the Mesolithic through the eyes of the modern, nuclear, family, but perhaps this is no bad thing if it can be used to introduce discussion about how we gather evidence, how we know what we think we know, and the biases that we bring to our understandings of the past. It is another aspect of the image that re-awakened one of my mental conundrums.

It is the clothes. Whenever we draw reconstructions of the Mesolithic we provide clothing for everyone. I do it myself when working with artists to illustrate Mesolithic life. But, there have been societies living in similar or worse climates that made little use of clothes. The Yamana of Tierra del Fuego, for example, had problems with keeping skin clothing dry and supple; for them, to wrap yourself in wet furs would be a quick way to catch cold. So they used fat to provide an insulating layer over their bodies and they took fire wherever they went in order to be able to provide warmth when necessary. It might seem like a strange lifestyle choice, but it was the helpful attempts of the London Missionary Society to hand out clothing collected in the UK that led to problems with hypothermia and cross infection. Think of the rural photographs of nineteenth century Scotland. The children are often barefoot even in circumstances that we would regard as challenging today.

I’m not saying that we should assume that folk in Mesolithic Britain went naked, but I am saying that we need to think about our assumptions. What archaeological evidence might we expect for clothing? Do we find it? I’m not sure that we have had the debate, but it would be good to start it. Meanwhile, I will continue to give my Mesolithic people clothing for now!

And if you have an interest in the Mesolithic I would urge you to download the Teesside Archaeology team’s excellent publication.