The Challenge of Stonehenge

Stonehenge in low winter light, December 2004
Stonehenge never loses its ability to inspire wonder and mystery. I suspect this is something we have in common with our ancestors who built it.

Was anyone else challenged by watching BBC Four romp through the interpretation of Stonehenge through the ages for Timewatch last night? It wasn’t the content – I loved that, there was some great archive footage and it was very interesting to summarize how we have looked at Stonehenge over the last seventy years. What got me was the way in which Stonehenge emerged as a powerful symbol of patriarchy.

I’m not talking prehistory here (well, maybe just a little bit). I’m talking archaeology. Thank goodness the programme was presented by Alice Roberts (I wonder if that was a deliberate decision). Other than that, apart from the work done by Jacqueline McKinley, all of those interviewed or shown in the old footage were men. I did not even try to count them.

This is not the fault of those making the programme. They can only work with the material available. But it is a problem for archaeology. You might think that it is just a sad reflection of our profession in the past, and that things are better now. But I am afraid that is not the case because the Beeb could apparently only find men to comment on the work. Now, I know that all three commentators were people who have been actively engaged with research at Stonehenge in recent years. Indeed, two of them appeared in the earlier footage. But is it true to say that women have nothing to contribute to the Stonehenge debate today?

I wonder if the problem is a little wider than this? Where are the Mary Beards of British Archaeology? We need women with gravitas who can communicate, but what is gravitas? Well, off the cuff, lets assume that in order to have it you need an academic post (two of last night’s commentators were cited as in academia, the other was in popular publishing). I’ve just had a quick look at the staff pages of the four universities in Scotland that have archaeology departments. It is difficult to be certain because each lists staff in different ways, but it looks as if there are a total of 57 academic staff, of whom 23 are women and 34 are men. In order to assess whether or not they have ‘gravitas’ I then tried to investigate the standing of their post. Again it is difficult, but it looks as if there are 18 posts across Scotland at senior lecturer or above, and of these 3 are held by women and 15 by men (interestingly that means that at lower grades 20 are women and 19 are men).

Of course it might just be that women don’t do research on Stone Circles? I’m not going to get into that debate here, though I have a feeling that women are as interested in broadscale Neolithic topics as men are? I had a quick look at Colin Richards’ book Building the Great Stone Circles of the North: he lists 27 co-authors, of whom 18 are men and 9 are women.

I’m not sure where this leaves us. But I’m sad that archaeology can still come over as such a male dominated profession. In fact, thinking of people like Kathleen Kenyon and Isobel Smith, I’m sad that archaeology has ever come over as a male dominated profession. Perhaps men just get to excavate higher status sites?  Perhaps we listen more seriously to what men say? Perhaps women measure achievement in different ways? Perhaps women leave academia to move into other posts? Popular communication is a vital part of archaeology in the twenty-first century, though. So it would be good to break that barrier with more than a handful of women.

While I’m moaning – I’ve another gripe about the programme: where was the footage of Foamhenge? Channel Five’s full size polystyrene replica of Stonehenge lingers in my memory for the way in which seeing all the stones upright, as if functioning as a single entity, made me think in different ways about the monument. Of course, last night’s programme was only drawing on BBC archives; my fantasy now is for a programme that uses all the material, whatever the channel, and incorporates a greater diversity of voices in the twenty-first century commentary on past interpretations.

Dating Problems

it can be easier to envisage time in a spiral
Time can be difficult for archaeologists to get a handle on. This depiction was drawn by Rhona Jenkins for my book: Fear of Farming.

I have a confession to make.

I hate dating…

To start with there are so many different types of date.

Take radiocarbon for example. I’m assuming you know how radiocarbon works (if you don’t there is a good explanation here). A raw radiocarbon date is a measurement of how much radiocarbon is left in an organic object, from which we calculate how long ago the object died. When you cite radiocarbon dates you can cite them as radiocarbon years: uncalibrated BP. But most people prefer to adjust them so that they equate to calendar years: calibrated BP; this is done by calibrating the radiocarbon date (which you will see referred to as a date, a determination, an assessment, an age or an assay), against organic material of known age (read about it here). A calibrated date is rarely a single year; it is more usually expressed as a range of years together with a probability in order to indicate the mathematical likelihood that the date falls within that range.

You have to know here that BP stands for Before Present. Except that it doesn’t – for uncalibrated dates it really stands for Before 1950, because that year has been accepted as a norm against which the decay of radioactive isotopes is measured. At the moment the little matter of 66 years seems but a tiny blip in the assessment of time, though we will have to do something about it as time progresses and measurements become more accurate.

Then of course you can adjust dates to the commonly accepted BC (Before Christ), except that in many countries it is now BCE (Before the Common Era). BC dates can be uncalibrated, or calibrated (usually: bc or cal BC). Uncalibrated bc dates are rarely used nowadays and usually achieved by subtracting 1950 from the uncalibrated BP date.

There are also calendar years (sometimes known as human years). And quite a lot of publications generalise as ‘years ago’. You will sometimes see dates quoted as 8 ka BP, which in general means 8000 BP and is usually calibrated, though the publication may specify that it is not.

Do you begin to see my problem? And I haven’t even begun to talk about the Bayesian analysis of dates (see here).

Add to the murk the fact that while archaeologists prefer quoting dates as cal BC, geoscientists will usually use cal BP. So, an interdisciplinary project can run into problems.

And not just interdisciplinary, multi-authored, projects; I’ve been reading a book that cites date ranges as uncal BP, cal BP, unspecified BP, years ago, 14C years ago, and cal BC; all in few pages of text. There are also a few uncalibrated original dates to play with.

It is a nightmare to make sense of it all. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m sure there must be a better way. For now, all we can do is plead for people to use one standard throughout their work, explain clearly what it is at the start, and stick to it!

I’m adding to this a link to the Archaeology Blogging Carnival that runs this month, perhaps there are other potential bloggers out there who like to think about archaeology!

Learning to expect the unexpected

Fishing in Lapland
Many taboos relate to diet

I’ve been reminded several times this week about the power of taboos. They are an interesting feature of human society, always unexpected, often seemingly unprovoked, they can act as powerful agents to change human behaviour. It is all too easy to forget them archaeologically and inhabit some sort of Binfordian Utopia, but we need to pay them heed because they can make people do unexpected things (or not do expected things).

Archaeology relies on the predictable nature of human behaviour. Otherwise we’d never be able to interpret anything. Even the wackiest of our theories has to have been sparked by something, somewhere, that we then apply to the evidence in front of us. And yet the very nature of any taboo means that is unlikely to be exactly replicated elsewhere. So, the conundrum is, how to recognise and interpret a taboo in the past. Three things have got me thinking this week.

The first was an excellent lecture given by Dr Jen Harland of the UHI Archaeology Institute on the consumption of fish in Orkney in the historical period. She presented evidence for the decline in deep water fishing of species such as cod and the rise in consumption of smaller species, and this led to some interesting discussion. Why would people apparently give up on a good food resource? Jen’s research is on going.

It got me thinking. Some of the evidence is similar to that which we see in prehistory, when Neolithic communities apparently eschew marine protein for terrestrial resources. I’ve always seen this as a simple case of the novel allure of burgers and their convenience over fish fingers, but perhaps it went a bit deeper than that. What if there was some sort of taboo relating to the sea in the Neolithic? This is an idea I need to explore.

Finally my colleague Ann Clarke reminded me to consider the power of taboo in my considerations of Doggerland. It is easy to assume that when a community is put under stress they will always follow the easiest path to survival. But does that always happen? What if they have some sort of cultural or social prohibition relating to the course of action that seems most sensible? I’m not sure how we might recognise that in our work on Doggerland, but it is something that we need to factor in.

I guess we all have taboos. They can be hard to break. Sometimes we don’t even recognize them. I’m sure our prehistoric forebears were just the same.

Weathering the Storm

Rising Tide coring
Better weather: coring work for the Rising Tide project in the Bay of Firth, Orkney. The water does not look like this just now!

I have been spending the past week working with my colleagues on the Rising Tide team. We should be out doing fieldwork, but what we are actually doing is listening to the wind and the rain and using enforced time indoors to work on some publications.

We have been focussing on three areas in our project to reconstruct the past landscape of Orkney and the way in which it has changed through time: the Loch of Stenness; the Bay of Firth and the island of Sanday. Work in the Loch of Stenness has reached a good point to publish, work in Sanday is still progressing, and we just needed a couple of sediment cores from the Bay of Firth. We have a small boat and a raft which we use to extract the cores from the seabed and we can then analyse the contents of the mud and investigate data on all sorts of interesting things like the incursion of marine water into the area and the resultant changes in microfauna and general conditions. Rising sea-level since the end of the last Ice Age means that the islands have been gradually getting smaller and I am interested in the impact this has had on the population. Luckily that rise in sea-level has slowed down considerably just now.

We often work at this time, the waters are clearer (if cold) so you can see what you are doing, and it is a good time for us all to get together (later in the year people tend to be working in more exotic locations). Sometimes the weather is great. Not so this year. We seem to have been at the centre of a storm for at least a week. As our boat and raft are small we hired a local survey boat to venture out on one of the calmer days but even then it was not possible to hold it still enough for coring. So writing it is.

Actually, this is not as bad as it seems. We want to publish our work and being shut away with nothing to do but write is a rare privilege. It is also useful to spend the week together in a sort of hothouse of ideas. I’ll let you know when we achieve those hard fought publications.

Meanwhile, it does make me think of our prehistoric forebears in Orkney. Mesolithic families knew the terrain and could hunker down somewhere reasonably sheltered where food (shoreline resources?) would be accessible for least effort. They’d still need fuel to keep warm, and other resources such as fresh water. And the longer they were in one place, the further afield they’d need to venture to collect those. So it can’t have been fun. I think it would have been worse in the Neolithic, though. One hopes they stockpiled plenty of fuel and food for the winter, and kept their houses in good nick, but there would still be basic farming tasks to complete. The animals would need tending. A long storm would require stamina and skill, and perhaps luck, to survive. Living in a larger, more permanent community had advantages and disadvantages.

I know that I am very soft compared to my ancestors; my needs are far greater than they could ever have imagined. Times like this fill me with respect for their skills and abilities.

On a brighter note – we had a great display of the aurora (known here as the Merry Dancers) on New Years Eve. I know that is chance timing and that the days of significance would have been different in the prehistoric past, but things like that fill me with wonder and make me feel part of some greater whole.


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.