North is the new East

Scotland as seen from the north.
We do not always have to put the north to the top of the map as our reference point. Sometimes it is worth altering our point of view.

When I studied archaeology many moons ago we were taught (to paraphrase), very much along the lines that civilization had come out of the east. It was a time of diffusionist ideas and thus it naturally flowed that new developments would appear first somewhere around the Straits of Dover and gradually work their way north. Text books, like Lacaille’s excellent ‘The Stone Age in Scotland’, followed this model, fitting the available evidence into a paradigm whereby early-looking stone tools in the north of Scotland were interpreted as representing archaic Mesolithic survivals, still in use in a backward northern society, centuries after people further south had taken advantage of more recent developments.

I can’t remember when I first became aware of the idea of perceptual geography, but I do remember being very taken with a map of the North Sea which I first saw in Bergen in the mid 1980s. I still have a copy on my wall. It looked west, from Bergen across to Scotland, and I suddenly realised that the world could operate very differently for those who do not need tarmac roads and governmental regulation from Westminster (or Edinburgh). It was an idea that I have tried to develop ever since. Thus, when people asked why a remote site like Rum was settled so early on, I could discuss the needs of the Mesolithic population and point out that, for a mobile, sea-going people, islands like Rum are in similar locations to the motorway service stations of England. Equally, if you skew the map of the North Sea, then the central position of Orkney in the maritime empire of the Norsemen becomes obvious.

As my research continued, it became clear that the earliest settlement of Scotland after the Ice Age was not a simple matter of people making their way slowly north as conditions improved. Rather, it looked as if there may have been several ‘homelands’ including perhaps somewhere in the vicinity of southern Scandinavia where the stone tools shared certain characteristics with those of northern Scotland.  Today, we might recognise this as affirmation of the migration of groups along the northern coastlands of Doggerland.

In recent years this has been followed by discussion of the primacy of societal and cultural developments in Neolithic Britain and the suggestion that elements such as Grooved Ware may have been part of a migration of ideas from north to south (an argument eloquently set out by Julian Thomas in his 2010 paper: The Return of the Rinyo Clacton Folk). Following this line of reasoning, iconic monuments such as Stonehenge become the culmination of seeds that first sprouted in the fertile fields of Neolithic Orkney and around monuments such as the Stones of Stenness.

I’m sure there are other examples in the intervening millennia but if we fast forward to today, it is interesting to note the extent to which things ‘northern’ have now become popular. We have Nordic food and design, Scandi-noir in publishing and on television, new histories of northern exploration, and a host of books exploring our attitude to the north. For the first time for ages, living in the north is no longer the symbol of the recluse but rather it is the trendy thing to do. At the same time our politics is fragmenting. Northern communities demand a voice and the developing primacy for everyday society of internet technology over the internal combustion engine is allowing them to develop it.

We no longer need to be able to reach London in a day. Those of us who live in the north, are happy in the north, and those who don’t, seem, increasingly, to wish they did. But then, as archaeologists, we knew this all along.

Virtual Worlds

Official Screenshot for Far Cry Primal showing the main character in the landscape
Official Screenshot for Far Cry Primal showing the main character in the landscape setting.

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

Storytelling

Runes at Maeshowe
The Vikings who carved the runes at Maeshowe were clearly literate and yet they were used to the power of the spoken word as a significant source of information

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.

Listening to the past

Bootleg Beatles
Sound is an essential element of the world in which we live. The sounds of our childhood are profoundly influential. The Bootleg Beatles at LunarFest 2015.

There is a real movement just now to make use of different ways in which to communicate archaeology and it is very exciting. This is not just through fiction writing, it encompasses a whole range of media including poetry (see the work of Laura Watts), art (eg: Aaron Watson) and sound (Ben Elliott and Jon Hughes).

One of the essential conundrums for those of us who work in the Mesolithic is that we are trying to communicate information about our Mesolithic forebears in a way which just did not exist in their world.  Even if they did have some form of written communication that we have yet to recognize, their world was largely an aural one.

After listening to Mark Edmonds talk about his work at Jodrell Bank the other day I was thinking just how much sound must have mattered to the Mesolithic community and wondering to what extent our sound-world differs from theirs. Obviously the content will be different. But what about the quality? How much were they aware of levels and tones that we no longer notice? It would be nice to think that we could start to consider this when trying to interpret sites. We tend to diminish the significance of the soundscape because our world has become so visual. But it was not so in the past. This is not a new idea. One project has been woven around the iconic site of Star Carr, where archaeologist Ben Elliott and sound artist Jon Hughes worked to explore the sounds of Mesolithic Britain.

It is important stuff because it helps to make our understanding of life in the past more complete.  We can never be sure precisely how people reacted to the aural world around them, but we can start to put together the suite of sounds that they would have encountered and by learning to investigate other senses beyond the visual we add depth to our explorations of the emotional reactions to the world in which people lived. These reactions went on to drive the physical world they created for themselves. And it is from this physical world that the remains of archaeology survive.

In this way we enrich our archaeological understanding. Phenomenology, while still mediated through the mind-set of the twenty-first century person, becomes truly multi-dimensional. Ironically, this step back towards the past has been made possible by modern developments in recording and listening technology as well as increasing awareness of the value of exploring a wider range of data.

And, of course, it is fun!

Differing Views

Brodgar and students
The Communication of archaeology – our ultimate aim!

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.