Altered Awareness

Blick Mead spring.
Upwelling bubbles in the pool at Blick Mead give the impression of animated cup and ring carvings. The combination of stillness  with animation is a good example of the way in which boundaries can become more flexible.

The other week I touched upon the altered awareness that I believe any Mesolithic archaeologist needs to develop. A sort of ‘Mindfulness of the Mesolithic’. This is not just a matter of physical surroundings. It extends to other elements of the way in which we locate ourselves in the world.

Today, we make clear divisions between the measurement of physical space: distance, and that of temporal space: time. But has it always been so? Barry Lopez introduced us to the idea that physical distance can also be perceived as time in his book Arctic Dreams. A journey is not just one of 100 km. It is also one of two days. For some societies this is how the world is understood. If you travel just a bit further it becomes more complex. My colleague Richard Clubley was discussing how you move back in time as you move north: when the daffodils are almost over in the south of England in early March, they will only be just emerging for those who live in the north of Scotland. You get the same effect over a shorter distance as you climb a hill: you might set out in the early morning sunshine of a spring day, only to move back in time to late winter snows as you reach the summit.

The rigid boundaries which we impose to make our world understandable can be fluid for those with a different view. A similar fluidity applies to community and landscape. The family, to us, is a fixed concept that operates within strict limits and boundaries. We may include several generations, and we have learnt to accept some who make short term absences, but in general, we live with the same group of people year round. The moment when we leave that group can be traumatic, sometimes played out over years as we re-stabilize into a new independence. Equally, most of us are accustomed to the same piece of landscape throughout the year. It may be small or large; in general, it rarely varies.

Life for the Mesolithic individual was different. We assume that family bonds were recognised, but we are by no means certain that people lived within the same group of individuals year round. At times the group may have split and recombined according to season and task; moving out across the landscape in order to make use of resources. These task-groups may have been based on age, gender, or relationship, or perhaps a subtle combination of all three. At other times outside factors such as a particularly harsh winter, an overly dry summer, or the impact of inundation, may have led to other divisions. In times such as these it is often easier to find food and other resources for smaller groups. Occasionally events such as a significant kill, or a whale stranding would bring people together in larger groups, groups that could be made use of to rekindle old ties and forge new relations.

This was the way of survival.

Today, we find security in the known. We are really very conservative. We like to know what to expect, who to greet, and where we will find food and shelter. We are highly rational beings; we have divided and counted and categorized and described our world into smaller and smaller (and bigger and bigger) units.

I don’t actually think that life for the Mesolithic family was any less ‘known’. But I do think that they knew in a different way. I think they were more comfortable to ‘go with the flow’. In a smaller community it was easier to know everyone, yet live with some; to understand the landscape, yet move across less visited areas; to perceive the passing of the sun as the scale of your journey. Like us, their lives were carefully controlled in order to ensure survival. Unlike us, their control contained the luxury of flexibility.

Past Lives

reindeer butchery
The author tries her hand at reindeer butchery in Lapland 1982 – lack of skill was countered by hunger!

Have you been watching any of the ‘past lives’ reality shows on television? I find that they have a horrible fascination for me. I just wish that they did not call them by names that made use of history and archaeology. In some cases, they can get us thinking about the lives of our ancestors, but while the message should be related to the loss of ancient skills and the difference of the world, it rarely is. All too often they give the idea that life in the past was a long hard struggle.

I can understand that the message: that we really have things much better today, may be a comforting one to give out, but there is so much more that we could take away. For starters, how can anyone think that these programmes actually tell us anything about life in the past?

Those who lived in the past, whether hunter-gatherer or 19th century baker, inherited and developed a deep skill set suitable for their particular lives. Today we require a different skill set and this means that we have lost the precise skills that we once used for other things. Of course, you can train yourself up to hunt boar, till with oxen, or bake in a wood fired oven. But you will never be doing it instinctively in quite the same setting as your predecessors. The boar will be different: living in different woods; surrounded by different predators; and surviving in different numbers. The farming is different: oxen are less common and unused to ploughing; the soil has been cleared and cultivated with other equipment; it has been subject to the application of fertilizer and pesticides; seed stock varies; even the weather is likely to have changed. It is the same for the baker: flours vary; ovens vary; your own strengths and skills vary; as do the tastes of your customers.

In fact, though there are some universal requirements for shelter warmth and food, we are not the same people as those of the past. Our bodies may look similar but our needs have changed. We use different foods and we require different amounts of calories. We are used to modern clothing; how many of us would survive barefoot, or without a thick fleece jacket? We have different social norms and different expectations – not just from the world around us but also from our friends and family. It always amuses me when modern health and safety intrudes onto the set, or medics appear to remove a participant who has not managed to digest the right sort of protein. Sadly for our ancestors, no such safety nets were available. And yet some of them survived!

Putting yourself ‘back in time’ is a fascinating experience. I know because once, many years ago now, I tried it. It got me thinking and it influenced my archaeology profoundly. But it didn’t actually tell me anything about what people did in the past. Except that, whatever it was, they were bloody good at it.

These programmes are fun, many of us find them compelling television. But they tell us more about ourselves today; don’t let’s give them a spurious academic validity.


Significant Places

Blick Mead
The main spring at Blick Mead has a very special atmosphere, though it lies in modern woodland.

Much has been written of the way in which natural places are significant to hunter gatherers and we assume that this was the case for those who lived in the British Isles in the Mesolithic. Not for them the dominance of the green earthen bank, the white quartz (or chalk) façade, the grey stone megalith. Instead we imagine that they related to locations that were more a part of the natural world. Locations where familiar things (water, trees, rocks), took on unfamiliar form.

The problem with this is that it can be hard to prove. In many cases, the very nature of the place will have been unlikely to survive the passage of the millennia since they were in use. Where they have survived, it goes against the archaeological grain to investigate a potential site that may, to all intents and purposes, ‘not be there’.  There are, however, a few locations that seem to tick the box and I know of two that are under investigation. I have been lucky enough to visit both.

High in the Cairngorms, at the point where the path climbs up into the exposed pass that we now call the Lairig Ghru, a waterfall, known as the Chest of Dee, cuts across an exposure of rock to fall to a series of dark pools. From here the River Dee makes its way eastwards out of the mountains and through fertile woodlands to the sea at Aberdeen. Footpath maintenance below the waterfall in 2005 revealed a handful of flint tools among which narrow blade microliths were recognised.  Since then excavation by students from the Universities of Aberdeen and Dublin (under the direction of Gordon Noble and Graeme Warren), has discovered plentiful evidence of Mesolithic activity.

At the opposite end of the topographical spectrum, at the southern edge of the Wiltshire Downs, the River Avon connects to a natural pool in the chalk, known as Blick Mead. Today, the pool lies within relatively recently planted woodland, but visitors are stuck by the atmosphere. It is a weird, yet peaceful place. The water is apparently still, yet it moves in an endless series of animated circles. This is not the action of fish, it is the result of bubbles as warm spring water comes to the surface. Excavation by students from the University of Buckingham and local volunteers (under the direction of David Jacques) has yielded abundant Mesolithic stone tools and other evidence.

In both cases these sites are linked in to a wider landscape. Mesolithic evidence extends to other sites in the close vicinity. Curiously, both have associations with great Mesolithic pit features: Blick Mead lies just over 2.5km from Stonehenge where a series of pits close to the henge site are interpreted by English Heritage as totem pole-like posts erected between 8500 and 7000 BC. Slightly further from the site at Chest of Dee, but along the same river, is the site at Crathes, where a line of carefully curated pits has been dated to around 8200 BC. Though these pits lie some 75km from the waterfall site, half way between the two is the narrow Pass of Ballater, where mineral deposits shine in lurid colours high in the rocks. Traces of these minerals were linked to the materials within the pits.

Our understanding of the way in which our Mesolithic forebears saw the world and their place in it will always be hazy. But there is increasing diversity in the sites that we recognise and this is exciting. Not only do we need to refine the ways in which we study the traces they left behind. We also need to distance ourselves from our twenty-first century appreciation of the world around us. At sites like these, we can start to enter a different state of awareness.

You can read more about these sites here:

Jacques, D. and Phillips, T. 2014. Mesolithic Settlement near Stonehenge: excavations at Blick Mead. Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural history Magazine, 107, 7-27.

Stonehenge Mesolithic Posts

Chest of Dee – we have submitted a paper to Antiquity, but in the meantime here is a video of the work on the site.

Crathes Mesolithic Pits


The Archaeological ‘Truth’?

Stonehenge reconstruction
Archaeology is all about telling stories – here in the interpretive centre at Stonehenge.

As you know one of my interests lies in the nature of archaeological truth.

Actually, I don’t believe that there is any such thing as ‘truth’ in archaeology – we can no more be certain of the motivations, or even the actions, that took place in the past, than we can of the reasons behind the things we did yesterday. But when we are writing we are all, as archaeologists, aware of this. Or are we? Given this lack of definitive proof we have to accept that without supposition there would be no archaeology.  But we have to learn how to use it properly. I think we have fallen into an archaeological shorthand that means that instead of saying: ‘the possible Neolithic houses at the site that we interpret as a village and which we call today Skara Brae’, we say: ‘The Neolithic houses at the village of Skara Brae’. Archaeological readers, we hope, will understand the caveats that go into any archaeological statement.

With this in mind, most authors will, at some point, preface their books with a statement to the effect that the interpretation presented may well change in the future. I don’t think most people have a problem with this – they accept that any discipline moves forward and the popular media keep people well aware of the advent and benefits of new archaeological techniques. When they were putting together the interpretive displays at Skara Brae, David Clarke and Pat Maguire tried to get around the issue of highlighting speculation by explicitly using a normal font face for ‘fact’ and italics for ‘supposition’. This works well – it looks good and does not prevent people from reading the text, but I wonder how many people have read enough to be aware of the reasons behind the change in type face?

Sometimes when we are working with non-archaeological colleagues, or those new to the profession, it can be more complex. When I was a recent graduate I felt strongly that because we could not verify the functional names we gave stone tools, like arrowhead, and because many pieces probably had multiple functions, we should eschew those functional names for more neutral terms. I was probably a bit of a pain about it. Over time, I realised that people did hold a more nuanced view of the terminology than I gave them credit for and I gradually relaxed. Now that I am older I find that the tables are turned and it is my turn to explain my use of traditional terminology.

One element of this that make me curious is the way that people fixate on some elements of our archaeological interpretation to the exclusion of others. Words such as ‘ritual’ or ‘ceremonial’ are guaranteed to raise the hackles of the interpretive purist, whereas they are much more likely to let terms such as settlement, or burial, go by unnoticed. To me these are equally laden. The ‘tombs’ of Neolithic Orkney seem to have been designed for so much more than simple disposal of the dead. And one of my personal bugbears is the unqualified use of ‘settlement’ when really we have no idea what went on. How do we define settlement even when it does involve an over night stop – could the camp-site that results from a group of 14 year olds celebrating the summer solstice be called a settlement? Is it domestic? I find that I am constantly seeking alternatives that are less value-laden – such as the bland ‘activity site’, or even ‘occupation’, when I am working on Mesolithic material. But then, of course, I don’t have burial sites or even many possible ceremonial sites, to worry me in Mesolithic Scotland.

Are we getting lazy at writing, and slow to re-examine the evidence for our deeply held beliefs? Possibly. Perhaps we are not good at welcoming new people into the profession and listening to what they have to say. We are certainly guilty of presenting unfounded suggestions as ‘gospel truth’. But, of course, we are just telling stories. We all need to remember that.

Creating Stories

Storm at sea
Watching a storm approach – when you live in the country the weather becomes something visual.

The vagaries of recent days have reminded me of one of the big differences that I have experienced since I moved north. Here, I experience the weather totally differently to the way in which it got me when I lived in the city.

In the city the weather was something that you felt. It was cold, or it might be wet, sometimes it was windy, occasionally it was hot. Here, there is so much more variety to it. For starters, the weather is something that you see, almost more than you feel. I love to watch big storms swirling across the sea towards the house. Once upon a time I found it hard to imagine the properties of air as something visual apart from the obvious times when fog or darkness interrupted my vision. Today I find myself obsessed with the sky and the clouds. I’m constantly looking up to see what is coming and from where. Sometimes it is just for the sheer beauty of it. Sometimes it helps me to prepare before I go out. Can I hang the washing out? Only if the white horses on the sea are not very pronounced. Which way round should I park the car? Bitter experience has taught me of the power of the wind on an open car door – more than once (I’m not a fast learner).

It has made me realise just how much our modern lives differ from those of the people we study in the past. It is not just the big things – stone tools and the lack of electricity. It is the total immersion in everything. It is hard enough for us to appreciate the way in which life can hang in the balance for the small scale subsistence farmer in a marginal environment. But the emotional experience of living is just so different as you travel back. No modern medicine – alters your perception of death; no fridges and freezers – alters your attitude to food; no central heating – alters your feelings about cold, clothing and food (have another look at War and Peace); no combustion engine – alters your perception of distance and home; no social networking – alters your understanding of friendship and communication. It doesn’t mean that we should not attempt to unpick the lives of our ancestors. But it does mean that we need to be aware of the boundaries within which we work.

I heard an interesting story on the radio about the problems of getting information from people today. Apparently, if you ask a simple question of a group of 100 men and 100 women you tend to get very different answers from the men to the women, whereas mathematically the patterning should be similar. But if you suggest that you will be checking the veracity of their answers, the difference vanishes. This, the presenter said, demonstrates the unpredictability of people. Left to our own devices we often ignore the rules. It is an elegant illustration of the conundrum that lies at the heart of archaeology.  As archaeologists we rely on the predictability of the people of the past and our own empathy with their imagined lives in order to build our interpretations of the evidence that we find. Sadly, not only are people unpredictable, but also our empathetic powers might have limitations.

So, archaeology is challenging – no news there. The upside is that as long as we take it on board that we are just creating and refining stories, there is always another one, another version to be woven out of the threads of understanding that we learn to play with every day.