Visualizing the past

sunset in Orkney
A dramatic autumn sunset in Orkney: could the islands provide the background for tv drama?

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.

 

 

 

Cultural exchange in prehistory

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.

MacGregor_16_9

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.

Mesolithic in the Cairngorms

I had a fab day on Saturday in the Cairngorm Mountains with the National Trust for Scotland and archaeologists from Aberdeen University.  The team from Aberdeen were excavating at one of the ancient find spots that we have recently found. It was a training excavation to give students a change to try their hand at excavation as part of their studies and the NTS had organised a day of Mesolithic activities for people to get an idea about life in the mountains some 8000 years ago when the first hunter-gatherer groups passed through. We were lucky with the weather, and though the midges were out in force, they did not make it up to the waterfall at Chest of Dee where the excavation was taking place.

This site is particularly significant because it provides some of the elusive evidence that our ancestors knew and exploited these upland landscapes. We saw some great flintknapping and learnt how to make nettle string, before ending the day with a Mesolithic-style pit-roast haunch of local venison. What more could an archaeologist ask for: interesting conversation, beautiful scenery, exciting finds and an excellent meal!

Excavation director Gordon Noble of the University of Aberdeen discusses the excavation with the visitors.
Excavation director Gordon Noble of the University of Aberdeen discusses the excavation with the visitors.
Brian Wilkinson of Heritage Journeys samples the pit roast venison!
Brian Wilkinson of Heritage Journeys samples the pit roast venison!

Experimental Archaeology

Back in 1982 I took part in an experimental archaeology expedition in Sweden. We recently unearthed the cine film footage of the expedition.

The project was initiated by Tomas Johansson of the Institute of Prehistoric Technology, Ostersund, Sweden.

The aim of the experiment was to introduce laboratory based archaeologists to the potential of intensive field based work. This short film documents the experiment over a week, tool making, butchering, fishing and gathering.

Continue reading Experimental Archaeology