Archaeology has changed so much since I studied at Edinburgh. That is a good thing – at least our work is leading to new finds and new thoughts.
Earlier this month Steven Mithen and Karen Wicks from the University of Reading released a press statement about their excavations at Rubha Port an t-Seilich on the island of Islay where finds of a particular style of stone tools point to human activity in the west of Scotland towards the end of the Late Glacial Period about 12,000 years ago. Technically, we call this period the Ahrensburgian, though of course we have no idea how the people would have styled themselves.
We do have other hints that people were in Scotland at the time, but, so far there is really very little evidence from this period. Luckily, people have always been slaves to fashion and archaeologists can make use of this; characteristic stone tools from this period do turn up, but they tend to be found as isolated finds, perhaps from hunting accidents. Rubha Port an t-Seilich provides the first opportunity to excavate a site in detail, so it is a significant find.
Conditions in northwest Europe at the time were chilly, with ice caps not far away. The landscape in this part of Scotland is likely to have comprised tundra grassland with cold winters but milder summers. Sites elsewhere show that the reindeer hunters of earlier periods had diversified to exploit the coast, and this perhaps explains the arrival of a group in Islay. Research indicates that the coasts of Scotland were free of extensive sea ice cover at this time. The evidence suggests that individual communities might travel long distances in order to exploit the resources around their territory. These people were sophisticated hunters, well equipped to be able to survive in an environment that we would find harsh. Nevertheless, the exploration of new lands was no mean feat.
When I studied archaeology in the 70s there was no evidence at all that Scotland had been inhabited this early. Indeed, there was little evidence from the subsequent Mesolithic period, and general wisdom suggested that the north and west of Scotland would have been uninhabited before the arrival of the first farmers some 6000 years ago. One reason for the lack of Mesolithic material was the lack of archaeologists working on it. Quite apart from the fact that it was the period that interested me most, I have always thought that I made a canny move setting out to study the period that most people found boring. It meant that whatever I did was likely to make an impact. It is not quite so easy for those embarking on an archaeological career today. I’m happy to report that there is now a strong and numerous band of happy Mesolithic archaeologists and that the results of their work across Scotland (even in the north and the west) mean that Mesolithic archaeology is full of interesting discussion and theory!
Hopefully the recent discoveries in Islay mean that we are about to witness the pushing back of the boundaries of ancient Scotland even further.
You can read more about Steve and Karen’s work in their recent paper here.
I’m reading Richard Nelson’s little book of stories about hunting in the north, Shadow of the Hunter. It makes fascinating reading; the stories are gentle, nothing too gripping, but it evokes a powerful sense of landscape, of different types of snow and ice, and of the decisions made by those who rely on their own senses to make a living there.
It brings home the way in which a successful hunter has to ‘become’ the prey, relying on empathy with the targeted animal in order to anticipate its movements and make a kill. Indeed he discusses this aspect as part of the everyday round.
I’m also struck by the way in which those who hunt and butcher in order to bring meat and other materials home must have a detailed knowledge of the anatomy and workings of the animals they seek. I know this is blindingly obvious, but it has never sunk in before. It got me thinking about the detail we see on Palaeolithic Cave art and other representations like some of the Pictish designs. Rather than being surprised at the apparent anatomical knowledge displayed by the artists it seems to me that the surprise is when they don’t depict it. The motivation behind more stylized illustration must have been interesting.
Another element of the book is the way in which the stories are played out by men. Women have little role in most of the chapters. This is largely due to the author’s own aims: he set out to record specifically hunting techniques. I know there are other books that record the role of women, like Daughters of Copper Woman and now I must go and revisit them.
I’m interested in the relationship between people and the sea. Perhaps it is something to do with living on an island and looking out at the sea every day. And with my research interests in hunter-gatherers and their mobility.
Visiting a local exhibition by Patty and Ralph Robinson on ‘Allegories of Migration’ in aid of the Scottish Refugee Council, I was very struck by some of the pieces and the thoughts they inspired. What role, for example, will the current sea-crossings in the eastern Mediterranean play in the stories that are told hereafter? Although we often see the sea as a boundary (we are an island nation after all), in many of our stories journeys across the sea act as gateways to adventure. Of course the classic tale is the Odyssey, but the theme holds good closer to home as well. From the the account of Rognvald’s journey to the Holy Land in the Orkneyinga Saga to Treasure Island, there is something about setting out by boat that we know in advance will serve to test our abilities with the possibility of great reward at the end.
But reading these stories at home is a very safe pastime. We rarely think of them as threatening. Perhaps we should. I listened fascinated (and horrified) to an interview on Radio Four the other day as a Syrian refugee family spoke calmly of the boat crossing they were about to make, of the fact that the boat would be sunk before they reached land, and of the fact that most of them could not swim. The dangers are huge. And yet the reward is so great, and their present situation so bad that the chances of being rescued make the journey worthwhile.
I wonder about the sea stories told by our Mesolithic ancestors. And whether the crossing of water has always been so laden. I suppose it probably has, from the moment we left Africa. It is very easy to be lulled into a false sense of security today, when one has a warm fire, a mug of tea and a good book. Even more so when our sea crossings are done in the comparative comfort of a modern ferry. Few of us in the UK set out across water in the knowledge that we might not return, or make it to the other side. Perhaps we should look differently at our tales of the sea and the way in which we write about past sea crossings, and we should remember that it has not always been so.
Is anyone else looking forward to the BBC Two series: The Last Kingdom? I am. Not just because it is a cracking story, but also because of the way in which visual media can be used to interpret the past.
One problem with archaeology is that it tends to be monochrome: the colour and noise of the past are often missing. This applies especially to the Mesolithic. Fiction, through the written word and other media, can help to remedy this. It is not without drawbacks though. How much research should authors do? What is the place of ‘truth’. How, exactly, should we use it? Is it ‘academic’ – we can spark public discussion, but does it have a role as an undergraduate exercise? This is something that is to be explored at TAG in Bradford this December and I am very much looking forward to taking part in that session.
Given certain caveats regarding the accuracy of the portrayal I’m all for the use of fiction in archaeology. In fact I’d argue that most archaeological publication is fiction anyway: we can never know precisely what went on in the past. Indeed, approaching the past as fiction in the sense of the written word forces archaeologists to confront some of the gaps that they prefer to gloss over. Excavation of a prehistoric site will rarely tell us what people had for breakfast, yet if we are to interpret the past fully we need to think about things like that.
Of course, with The Last Kingdom we move into the realm of history and you could argue that we have no need to resort to recent fiction here because the Vikings produced their own stories, the Sagas, which provide a detailed and colourful portrayal of their times (setting aside debates over the veracity of the Sagas). I know that ITV are to present the Old English poem Beowulf in the Spring, but I’d like to suggest the Orkneyinga Saga for future consideration. It is an action-packed story with some feisty characters (women and men) and the locations would be magnificent.
One of the big, and fun, debates in British archaeology relates to the way in which farming was introduced some 6000 years ago. We know that there was already a population of hunter-gatherers well established in the islands, how did they react to new ways?
This week I went to a great lecture in Aberdeen which got me thinking about this. Robin Torrence and Jude Philp (from the Australian Museum and the Macleay Museum, respectively) were talking about their work researching the ethnographic collections of Sir William MacGregor, the first Administrator of British New Guinea in the late nineteenth century. Much of MacGregor’s material ended up in Aberdeen when he retired home. The interesting thing is how the material changed from first contacts to once the relationships had been established. Apparently when the British first came into contact with a new tribe the material they were given comprised mainly objects that reflected the uncertain nature of the contact, and the people they first met, like clubs and mace heads. Later on, when everyone had got the measure of each other, the material changed to more domestic items. So you can see a difference in the collections from different areas over time. Also it seems that here, at least, excavation of the mission settlements and the local settlements suggests that each had very few of the others’ artefacts. I’m wondering what it says about culture contact and material object and particularly to our archaeological evidence for the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic in the UK. We need to be very careful of erroneously drawing direct analogies from ethnographic work, and in the UK it is likely that this period of transition saw many different scenarios. But it is obvious that we need to think outside the box a bit.
Sir William MacGregor (source: University of Aberdeen website)
MacGregor was very aware that the advent of colonial rule would change the way of life of the people he was living among and he was keen that the material he had collected be used for the education of people at home. I’m hoping that he would have been pleased to know that it is still provoking debate over 100 years later.