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.

 

Archaeological Fiction

With the imminent arrival of TAG I have been thinking about Archaeological Fiction. Has anyone else been enjoying The Last Kingdom on BBC Two? A friend described it as a guilty pleasure. There is no reason why the pleasure of watching TV should be guilty, but I think there is a bit more to The Last Kingdom than mindless relaxation. I’m sure it is full of horrible anachronisms, but it raises some interesting points. The details are more nuanced in the books, but that does not mean that the television series is not worth watching.

First of all there is the depiction of two competing groups living in a single landscape. How do you tell people apart? How do they use the landscape? How do different languages and religions work? How do groups view one another? Secondly there is the depiction of the Christian church struggling to establish and maintain its place within Saxon society. This raises all sorts of questions relating to new influences and new ways: the role of women; education; medicine; food; religion and politics; and religion and language – all of these come into the story. Thirdly, there is the sheer level of violence in the world: how did one maintain economic stability when passing horsemen might burn your farmstead and kill your folks on a frequent basis; how does it affect people to live in a world where extreme violence is commonplace?

Obviously, this is a period about which I know very little – certainly not enough to pronounce on the accuracy of the depiction. But for me the interest lies not so much in the details as in the questions. You could regard it as science fiction, although the details are subtler than in Star Wars many of the questions are the same. It has got me thinking. For me it is a reminder that the stability and unity that we seek so urgently today have always been elusive. It turns my mind to the end of Mesolithic Britain, another great time of clashing cultures. What was it like to live then? Was it violent as some people suggest? There have been so many periods when the landscape of Britain was home to differing and distinctive peoples. Are we unique today in seeking a cosy homeland where all agree?

Finally, I do return to the detail. How on earth did the programme makers manage to find an actor who looked so like the Alfred Jewell?

The alfred Jewell
The Alfred Jewell as depicted on the Ashmolean Museum website
Alfred
Alfred, played by David Dawson, as depicted by BBC Two

The Interdisciplinary Nature of Mesolithic Research

Excavations at Rum in the 1980s
Excavation in progress at Kinloch, Rum in the 1980s. does the lack of evidence on a Mesolithic site force us to adapt our research to include a wide range of complimentary studies?

I recently attended a fabulous archaeological meeting in Argyll. Some 70 participants, a mix of professional and community archaeologists, spent two days discussing the finer points of the archaeology of the area, from the earliest times to recent remains. Set amidst the wonderful landscape of the Kilmartin Glen, it was a privilege to be able to devote the time to unpicking the finer points of the archaeology and history of this remarkable area.

I learnt a lot, not least because the format of the meeting meant that everyone participated in everything, even outside our usual period specialisations. This meant that each period benefitted from some alternative points of view. It also meant that I was forced to consider the archaeology of periods about which I know little. Not surprisingly, there was more overlap than I originally expected.

Surprises and differences were also evident, however. During a consideration of historical evidence, I was startled to find myself embroiled in a passionate discussion as to whether we should embrace interdisciplinary projects. To me this is a no brainer. How can we ever understand our ancestors properly, if we don’t understand the world in which they lived? We need to research vegetation, relative sea-level change, and geology, among other things, if we want to gain a full picture of that world. Indeed, the rise of specialist analysis is adding almost monthly to the suite of aspects that we can learn about the people of the past. Who would have thought that the study of isotopes might reveal so much, or that detailed DNA material might be available in sediments?

It was shocking to realise that there are people for whom the study of the material culture of the past is sufficient in isolation. I wonder why this is? Does the lack of material culture in the Mesolithic mean that we have been forced to look more broadly in order to justify ourselves? Perhaps, it is because the lives of those who inhabited Mesolithic Scotland were intertwined so closely with the world around them that we take that into account in our studies. And yet, the geographical nature of Scotland today is fundamental to an understanding of our own lives.

I appreciate now why so many grant forms spell out that they like to receive applications that comprise interdisciplinary studies. It is not obvious to everyone. These differences in how we do archaeology are fascinating. We think that we are all part of one broad profession, and yet at meetings like this we become aware of the different paths that we each follow. Sadly, one side effect of the increasing availability of specialist analyses is that it is becoming less common for one meeting to embrace a wide range of those disciplines that go together to make up our understanding of the past.

Talking of which, I took part in an archaeology podcast earlier in the autumn with Kim Biddulph of the Archaeology Podcast Network and Spencer Carter, another Mesolithic aficionado. We were discussing the use of fiction to interpret the Mesolithic and you can eavesdrop on our conversation here.