The value of conferences

Gammla Uppsala
Sunset over Gammla Uppsala. Some experiences transcend time.

One evening in late summer, I found myself standing with some 200 people in the shadow of the massive Early Historic mounds at Gamla Uppsala in Sweden, watching a group of fire dancers as the sun went down. It was an amazingly evocative experience, not least because we were surely following in the footsteps of generations of others who also gathered at this historic place and enjoyed similar entertainment. My turn came as part of the conference dinner celebrations for the fourth Landscape Archaeology Conference which was held in Uppsala at the end of August. It was, I have to say, the best conference dinner evening I’ve ever been to, and I have been to a few.

Of course there is much more to a conference than the dinner, though the sceptical might note that I start by recalling that evening and only later move on to the meeting itself. I’ve been to three meetings on ‘Landscape Archaeology’ this year and all have been rewarding. All got me thinking.

Attendance at a conference is an expensive business, especially if, like me, you don’t have an employer willing to pay your costs. It also requires you to leave your desk for a few days and put work, more or less, on hold. You have to think carefully before committing yourself, and often you have to make this decision before the final programme has been released. This usually means a spot of last minute soul searching when you glance over the papers and worry that there is really very little that will be of interest to you.

Luckily, I always find that I am wrong. To start with there are the papers that are of relevance. A group of keen academics can turn even the most apparently disparate topics into a unified discussion of surprising significance. These are the ‘comfortable’ sessions based around a theme of obvious applicability. Discussions spill over into coffee and lunch breaks and ambitious plans are made for future collaborations and meetings. But, in a way the especial value for me comes from the papers that I’d not identified as relevant. There are sessions that I attend because I got chatting to someone the previous night, sessions where one paper looks promising, and sessions that just sound whacky. I like to think of these as my ‘uncomfortable’ sessions. All have presentations that get me thinking.

They act as a reminder of just how narrow our academic worlds can become. Of course, we focus on identified research topics, on the fields for which we are funded, or those in which we hold particular expertise. But, it is also important to think outside the box, to expose ourselves to other ways of doing things, and to other data sets and interpretations. When I see how people use their data when investigating other periods, or the constraints that have affected the people of the past in other places, then I begin to think of new ways of looking at prehistoric Scotland.

A good example of the ‘uncomfortable’ from my recent trip includes a discussion of the way in which a landscape of women has been identified by John Kinahan’s work among the hunter-gatherers in the Namib Desert. I’m only too aware that archaeological remains often favour men’s lives, but the idea of distinct yet co-existent landscapes created by women and men is new for me and something that opens exciting new possibilities. In Mesolithic Scotland we don’t have quite the density of sites that exist in Namibia, but it is something to think about.

Another example, this time from a ‘comfortable’ session, comes from Steve Dickinson’s work with Aaron Watson in Cumbria where he has been surveying the ‘natural’ landscape in minute detail and identifying a range of monuments, some completely natural, some partly worked, some totally anthropogenic, that lead towards the axe factories at Great Langdale. This work overturns our carefully defined boxes of ‘Natural’ and ‘Cultural’ into a sliding scale that pushes beyond the work of Bradley or Tilley in recognizing the archaeological value of place. Dickinson classifies it as Incipient Monumentality. He is not the first to use the term; it is explored (among other things) by Chris Scarre and Luc Laporte and their colleagues in a new book, and I’m hoping that we are going to learn more about the phenomenon in Cumbria as well as in other locations. I believe that it helps us to understand the Neolithic relationship to landscape across Britain and I’m looking forward to some future conference to discuss other examples.

Thinking about it, it is obvious that my own presentation has slipped into insignificance in relation to my new ideas. Hopefully I managed to interest others, and it definitely helps to give a paper because it helps people to understand where your own research is going. But really, I go to conferences to identify gaps and to learn, not to validate what I’m already doing.

With this in mind I have to mention that very big conferences don’t work for me. I’ve always fancied attending one because they tend to be prestigious. But I tried it last year and found that really I only mixed with people I already knew. It was a great venue to catch up with work colleagues, but there were so many people there and such varied papers that other contacts were somehow ephemeral. Maybe there is a knack I have yet to learn, but I don’t think I’ll be trying that again. I prefer something more targeted where there is at least one single theme uniting us.

So, the conference season for 2016 is over for me now. There is no money left in the kitty. But I’ve already been told of some promising meetings in the pipeline for 2017. Exciting!

Ideas of efficiency

Remains of a posh supper? Remains of a paupers’ meal? Actually, a teaching aid.

To my mind, to be a successful archaeologist you have to move beyond the norms by which you live. Of course the people of the past were people, just like us. But there can be no hard and fast rules where people are concerned. The search for universal rules of behaviour ultimately undermined the rigid application of middle-range theory in the 1980s, and we still need to be careful that we do not slip into the trap of assuming that just because we think ‘thus’, so the people of the past must have applied the same criteria.

A great example of this lies in the oft discussed ideas that stone circles were not necessarily conceived as ‘finished’ entities, and that the aim while building them may have been to employ more, rather than less, hours in construction. The act of building; the organisation; the ability to undertake tasks that did not simply relate to the production of food; the creation, transport and erection of a single stone: all of these may have been the statements that served to knit a community together and enhance its image in the eyes of its neighbours.

Twenty-first century ideas of efficiency cannot be applied to the past, even the recent past: consider how the construction of a cathedral may have so much more meaning imbued within it over and above the simple erection of a place in which to worship God. In the case of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall it was indeed a building designed to shout out the glory of God. But it also set out to be a statement of the wealth and connections of the new Earl, Earl Rognvald, while at the same time serving to establish his power over and above that of the established church in the islands. It was, also, a visible promise to his new dependents: he would see to it that Orkney remained great and that their lives under him would flourish.

The same caveats work, even when we discuss humbler buildings. Homes, for example, have only in recent times evolved to include ideas of space and privacy that would have seemed very alien to many of our ancestors. They are not always recognised in cultures away from Britain today; my former family-in-law in Chile never really understood my occasional need for solitude. Today in the UK, we incorporate elements that are not actually ‘efficient’ into our structures; we could live cheaper lives and expend less energy if we had fewer rooms and made use of them to house more people. Modern ‘energy efficient’ architecture still has to incorporate twenty-first century norms of ‘the right way to live’.

A further example of behaviour today that might surprise our forebears lies in the regular use of the gym. What would they make of our tendency to spend hours working together, and yet never talk, simply to run, cycle, or walk without ever actually going anywhere? Of course, there is a point to it for us: the relentless drive to keep fit. But would that be obvious to the untutored outsider (which is what we archaeologists are)? I suspect that some sort of religious cult would be the most likely explanation, and maybe they would not be wrong.

It is quite fun actually to set yourself to thinking of other ways in which our norms may have been different in the past, and of ways in which our own activities might be misinterpreted. If you have not come across it, I thoroughly recommend David Macaulay’s book ‘Motel of the Mysteries’. It is a bit dated now but it is still a lot of fun and provides an important cautionary tale about leaving your own world behind when you delve into the world of the past. I think this is one of the reasons that many archaeologists enjoy Science Fiction: the creation of worlds is, after all, what we do.

Whatever your motives, remember that to be an archaeologist one of the most important attributes is imagination. As someone once said in a different context: you should always be prepared for the unexpected!

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.

No Rural Idyll

Ness of Gruting neolithic farm
Remains of the Neolithic farmstead on the hillside at Ness of Gruting

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!

Neolithic Catastrophes

Storms can make life difficult

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.