Mezolith – Book Review

As you might have gathered one of my passions is integrating archaeology, and particularly Mesolithic archaeology, into everyday life. By happy chance I was invited to review the two Mezolith graphic novels which do just that. You can read my review in the most recent issue of Mesolithic Miscellany (volume 24.2) which is free to download here, or to view online here. You need to scroll towards the end of the journal. If you are a fan of graphic novels, or the Mesolithic, I recommend getting hold of these two books!

Type Fossils, Seriation and Dating

A modern take on becoming the animal, from Lunar Festival 2015
Sometimes it is difficult to fit everything in to one chronological or cultural envelope

I’m still on my high horse about type fossils, seriation and dating.

Unlike our predecessors in the early days of archaeology, we have the luxury of several different techniques by which we can provide dates for our sites that approximate, within envelopes of accuracy, calendar years. The most commonly used is radiocarbon dating, but various technicalities about the way in which radiocarbon isotopes accumulate and decay mean that the dates have to be carefully calibrated.

Recently, the accuracy and usefulness of radiocarbon dates have been refined by the introduction of a technique known as Bayesian Dating. It is a complex statistical process by which known information about the sample to be dated can be added into the process to increase the resolution of a date. Thus, for example, if we are dating a carbonized hazelnut shell we might also consider the types of tool with which it is found, the stratigraphy of the sample in comparison to other samples, and our interpretation of the site in comparison to similar sites.

Bayesian dating reduces the size of the envelope of accuracy meaning that we get determinations that approximate more closely to human events. It has been used very successfully to help interpret sites in a way which is more meaningful. Instead of saying that a site might generally have been in use between say 3500 – 2900 BC, we can now incorporate a close analysis of the stratigraphy of different structures on that site, and the finds within the site in order to tease out more precise dates and a sequence for individual structures to suggest that while some of the earlier structures may have been built between 3100 – 3050 BC, the last building activity on site occurred between 3000 – 2950 BC. It is a revolution in the way in which we can think about the use of the sites that we study.

But, I’m concerned that some of the analyses that I see appear to go to considerable lengths in order to reconcile the type fossils and the dates. If we only use type fossils in combination with Bayesian dating in order to confirm our preconceptions, then we will never be able to expand our understanding of the peoples of the past.

For example, a recent study looked at assemblages from 61 sites in order to produce a chronology of the sites in relation to one another. The hypothesis was that these sites fell into a sequence of five different cultural types. The type fossils from each site were identified and used to refine the dating. But there were problems. Several of the sites had combinations of type fossils that apparently fell into more than one of the periods. Others had type fossils that did not appear to be in the right chronological group. So, the study had to start by excluding sites where the type fossils did not easily conform to the hypothesised chronology. Thirty-one sites (half of the original number) were excluded. In this way, it was possible to confirm a tight and interesting chronological sequence for the sites and the type of material they held. But, some of the phases in that sequence comprise very few sites indeed.

I’m just wondering whether a phase that apparently holds good across the UK but only comprises two or three sites, is really valid as a phase? Could it possibly be a regional development? And what about all the sites that were excluded because their type fossils did not conform to the pre-existing pattern? Could they possibly identify new patterns – either a local pattern or a chronological one (or both)? Reading the paper, I came away with the impression that the authors were struggling hard to make the data produce the results they wanted.

It is difficult because we tend to publish only positive results, but I would like to have seen some analysis and discussion that tried to make sense of all the material. Even if it did not seem to confirm accepted wisdom. Bayesian dating is a wonderful new tool but we should be using it to push the boundaries of our interpretation forward, not to confirm our existing thoughts.

The real import behind all this is that we can’t just undertake quick projects to double check our old ideas. In a project like this, we need to go right back to basics and look at the stratigraphy and content of all the sites that relate to our study, whether or not they conform to our pre-existing ideas. And perhaps look for some new ideas? Even when the uncertainties are acknowledged, it often does not stop people from publishing reports wherein they point out how the results from one site can skew the results.

It is also clear that we need to stop looking for patterns that appear to work across the whole of the UK. Of course, the political boundaries that we use today are meaningless in terms of prehistory, but that is not to say that people lived in some bland uniformity across the British Isles. Research suggests that life has got more uniform, not less, with the passage of time.

Talking about uncomfortable things

orkney sunrise
The past might be nasty, brutish and short, but let’s try to keep a rosy view in our dealings with one another.

I feel very uncomfortable about accusations of the political use of archaeology. My overwhelming instinct is to stick my head in the sand and avoid discussing or confronting them. I don’t want to stir things up and I don’t want to upset or offend people. But, I’m going to consider it just now because I feel that these are weird times in which we live, and sometimes we must address uncomfortable matters.

Archaeology is inherently political, if nothing else because we are trying to investigate past human communities and people are always, in one way or another, political. But it is one thing to recognise political content and quite another to use that content to make political statements that relate to different (usually modern) times. I don’t like it when people try to bend archaeological interpretation and use it as a window on to present politics. It has been done, and it usually ends in tears.

There has been some discussion in the press and social media about the possible use of the Secrets of Orkney television series to promote a unionist agenda of British politics (see Kenny Brophy’s article as a good starting point). I’m worried by this. Having commented on the representation of Neolithic Britain as a period wherein the expression of some elements of life were shared as material culture across these islands, it has been said that it would have been more representative to celebrate the diversity of Neolithic Britain and the uniqueness of Neolithic Orkney. I wonder if that could be construed as serving the opposite agenda? And are not both views valid?

Surely, as archaeologists we have a duty to present the past in whatever way we each, individually, see it – with the caveat that we need to try to stop our views of the world today from intruding too deeply on our ideas of the world of the past. I realise, of course, that we are all coloured by our beliefs, whether they relate to religion, the current political situation, acceptable foods, the role of music, whatever. But if we allow for a plurality of interpretation then, hopefully, the end result will be ideas that are more balanced across a range of possibilities. We can perhaps even encourage people to critique the archaeological narrative for themselves. It might not be possible to produce an alternative television series for every viewpoint, but it is, surely, possible to make use of other media: books; blogs; newspaper and magazines. It doesn’t do any harm to show the processes of academic debate, and we don’t have to be rude, or confrontational, while we are doing so (let’s save that for in-house conferences and the pub).

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I’ve touched on it before, but I don’t believe that there is any correct answer regarding the interpretation of the material that we excavate. As professional archaeologists, we learn to work within academic boundaries, but I can’t tell you what happened in the Mesolithic any more than I can explain the extinction of the dinosaurs. And, as you know, I don’t believe that my word is any more valid than that of the carefully researched artist, TV company, or cartoonist. Does this make me a ‘post-truth’ archaeologist? I fear that it might; though, I’d argue that the application of professionally acceptable boundaries to my thoughts lifts them well above some of the reinterpretations of history that we have seen. It is a slightly different application of the phrase. I’m post-truth in the sense that, while I believe that the facts/data in archaeology are immutable, I also believe that there are different ways to interpret them.

Returning to the Neolithic of Orkney and Britain. The gaps in the evidence are such that it is possible to build narratives that address many different views. I was involved in an advisory capacity with the production of the Secrets series, and so I am, of course, biased. I understood it to be focussed primarily on the Neolithic of Orkney, but, given the lack of popular information relating to the Neolithic, I thought I could understand the need to use Stonehenge as an anchor. The idea that the development of material culture in Orkney pre-dates that further south is hardly new – it has been well covered from the National Geographic Magazine to academic papers. Whether I like it or not, most of the television audience will be more familiar with Stonehenge than Skara Brae. I thought the challenge to contemporary ideas of remoteness worked quite well to get people thinking about a time when the social geography of Britain was not as we know it. For those reasons, the focus on Orkney and Stonehenge did not worry me.

It would, of course, be nice to produce a series that covered the details of Neolithic life in all their glory and diversity, right around the UK. It would be a lengthy series, and it would be expensive, but if someone would like to commission it then do get in touch. We could have fun putting it together. We could, perhaps, ask teams from different places to curate the scene from their locales, so that we are also looking at some of the different viewpoints that affect our ideas of the past. Would we hold our audience? I don’t know and that is why I suspect that us academics are better to leave specialist subjects such as television to the professionals. Nevertheless, we do have a duty to push for increasing public access to our musings, and so I look forward to the material that will, no doubt, be spawned by reaction to the Orkney programmes.

I know that I would be naive not to recognise that archaeology will, on occasion, be used as the handmaiden of politics. There is so much scope that I’m amazed that it does not happen more often. As archaeologists, we are keen to illustrate the ways in which our profession can be of use to the present. But, I’d feel more comfortable if it were possible to be less confrontational. If there is one lesson I’d promote (thereby negating the whole of my argument above), it is that there is, in these north-western islands off the coast of Europe, plenty of room for diversities of view.

The Landscape of the Ness of Brodgar

Landscape of Orkney
The landscape at the heart of Neolithic Orkney. This was a    dynamic place for those who chose to site their monuments here.

New Paper out on the development of the landscape around Ness of Brodgar.

Wickham-Jones, C.R., Bates, M., Bates, R., Dawson, S. and Kavanagh, E. 2016 People and Landscape at the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. Archaeological Review from Cambridge, 31 (2), 26-47.

Together with my colleagues, I’ve been working on a paper to discuss the results of our work on landscape change around the Ness of Brodgar, particularly relating to the Loch of Stenness. We published the tekky detail this time last year, and we were keen to explore what it might mean with relation to the Neolithic communities of the area and the siting of the monuments that make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. You really have to read the paper to get the full detail, but in essence our landscape reconstructions document the penetration of marine conditions into the dry land world of the Neolithic farmers at the heart of the islands. Given the emerging evidence for the ‘slighting of the sea’ in the Early Neolithic, it is fascinating that this fragile spot became so important to the island community.

It is possible to order a copy of the Landscape issue of Archaeological Review from Cambridge here. But I can let people have a pdf of our paper for individual research interests – just email me (my email address is on the home page).

Secrets of Orkney – Reminder

Scapa Beach
Scapa Beach at New Year.

Just a quick reminder to those of you with access to the BBC to set your recorders to view Secrets of Orkney on BBC Two this evening (Monday 2nd January 2017) at 9pm.

The filming is wonderful and the story that it unfolds will get you thinking. For more about my involvement with the series see my entry in the Oxbow Books Blog here.

Let me know your opinions, and questions after the episodes. You can get my email address from the home page of my website.