It is a good question and the author is to be credited for posing it. Unfortunately, the ensuing text is full of contradiction and occasional bias. Nevertheless, it is a topic that should, perhaps, be required thinking for all of us who work in prehistory at least once a year. To approach it, we need to go back to the basics.
The Guardian Newspaper is starting an archaeology and anthropology blog: Past and Curious. It is a great step forward for a newspaper which has always (to my mind) had a good reputation for measured, well-researched archaeology. It should be interesting. I’m hoping it is going to tell us more about the ways in which the past impacts on ordinary everyday lives, today and in the past, here and elsewhere, rather than about ‘tombs, treasures, tribes, and high adventure’, though. This is just because one of my bugbears is the way in which we reduce everything archaeological to hyperbole. To be fair they do suggest that they will be aiming to get behind the scenes and into the nooks and crannies of our work. Perhaps I’m also jealous that archaeological adventurer was not a career path when I graduated, and these guys seem to be taking full advantage of the possibilities that suggests. But then, if I reflect, I’d have to say that I’ve had my fair share of adventures: digging on the Lebanese border with Israel in the 1970s; trying out stone age technology in Lapland in the 1980s; working in the arctic; and in the far south.
It is certainly true that archaeology impacts on everyone, everywhere, in every field of life. So, I look forward to reading their blogs and seeing how they settle in. It is a great step forward, towards the infiltration of archaeology into all aspects of the twenty-first century.
Bayesian dating is a new, and useful tool in the archaeological box of tricks. And like any new toy – we are keen to make use of it. But, it is a specialised piece of kit and we need to be careful that we know exactly what we are doing. I’m amazed by the number of times people say: ‘but why did you not use Bayesian dating’. In most cases the answer would be that it is not appropriate for poorly contexted samples on a site with shallow stratification. But I’m too polite to say that. Too many archaeologists seem to consider Bayesian dating as a simple means of getting more accurate dates.
Even when undertaking the old-fashioned application of radiocarbon assay it was necessary to remember to constrain our data carefully so that we understood the context of the sample we were dating and therefore exactly what the date might relate to. Is the pit-fill contemporary with the digging of the pit? Is the deposit on a house-floor related to the use of the house, or is it some sort of dumping after the house had gone out of use? Is the wood heartwood from an aged tree? Has the wood (or bone for that matter) been curated over a period of years? So many things to take into account.
However we use radiocarbon assay, and whatever method we use, we should never use it unquestioningly.
I know I come over as obsessed with all of this. But I learnt of the dangers of type-fossils and pre-conceived ideas early on in my career as an archaeologist.
When I studied archaeology we were taught that there was no Mesolithic occupation to speak of in highland Scotland. Not long after graduating I had the opportunity to excavate a nice lithic scatter on the island of Rum. The site was defined by the occurrence of a barbed and tanged arrowhead among the lithics, so we drew up a research design to excavate a site that was, clearly (according to the type fossil), Bronze Age. As we sieved our test pits and sorted the residue a lot of flaked stone occurred. It included a lot of small pieces with tiny retouch – microliths. But I knew they should not be there because microliths were Mesolithic and did not occur in the Bronze Age. And I had learnt at university not to expect Mesolithic occupation that far north. Even when I filled in the radiocarbon forms to send our precious carbon samples off for assay I noted that the predicted date range lay within Bronze Age parameters. I remember that well.
Imagine my surprise therefore when the dates came back: a nice little sequence around 8500 years ago. This was long before the Bronze Age. Indeed, it sat within the Mesolithic but was early even for Mesolithic Scotland and unknown that far north. I can remember thinking that if I didn’t know there was no Mesolithic in the area I’d think the site was Mesolithic. Of course, the penny eventually dropped, we continued to excavate a fabulous Mesolithic site (you can read the report for free here), and many other people have since examined other Mesolithic sites around there and even to the north.
But I had another surprise. I thought that my archaeological colleagues would be interested (even pleased) in my findings and so I phoned and wrote to people to tell them about the site and the dates. Curiously, people were divided: some wrote back with hearty congratulations; others were more cautious, telling me that I must have contaminated the samples, that it was just not possible for Mesolithic hunters to have penetrated that for north by that date, and so on. It was, I discovered, hard for some people to give up their fixed ideas of the order of things.
Change is always difficult, but I think we need to be cautious of thinking that we have worked out everything there is to know about the past. We need to be open to new interpretations and ready to rewrite our narratives. We need to remember that it is rarely the type fossils that are wrong, but rather our understanding.
So, the moral of my story is – to keep an open mind. To be open to the unexpected. And to be careful not to set the past into stone. The frameworks that we build to understand the people of the past need constant tweaking. That is what keeps us on our toes. That is what keeps it interesting.
And this is my last post on dating for a while – I promise!
I put together a wee lecture for Radio Orkney last night on the findings of Late Upper Palaeolithic tanged points in Orkney and how they push our understanding of the earliest human exploration of Orkney back to some 13,000 years ago. It lasts for about half an hour. You can listen to it here. Please note that the image Radio Orkney has used to illustrate it is of a handaxe that was found on the beach some years ago and is not actually appropriate to the lecture (it is not likely to be an in situ find, and would be many millennia earlier if it was). I did put together a few images to go with the lecture, they have not been posted with the lecture, but if you would like to get them then just email me and I will let you have a copy – they might relieve the tedium of listening to me droning on for half an hour!
I woke to a panel discussion on Radio Scotland the other day regarding the current popularity of archaeology. It was nice to hear them praise the recent Orkney television series, but what really interested me was the link they made between living in uncertain times and the need to reinforce ideas of heritage.