The Patterning of Things

axe and knapping debris
What meaning should archaeologists ascribe to material culture?

Humans, as I read recently, look for patterns, even meanings, in things. Archaeologists are used to dealing with things and we certainly like pattern. Half (a generalization) of our data is derived from material culture, the ‘things’ of the past; we deal with the everyday, and other, objects with which people were once familiar and which have survived to the present day. We construct our narratives about the past from the interpretation of these objects. In order to do that, we look for the patterns and we try to explain them. Some of the patterns are obvious: a row of round bottomed pots; a collection of leaf shaped arrowheads, we assume that groups of similar objects relate to a common template incorporating certain desires and functions. Other patterns can be more problematic: the different shapes of certain stone tools can, for example, seem to blend into one another; one shape of pot can, apparently, be replaced by another. All too often, we find ourselves requiring an explanation for the differences, rather than the similarities, in the material that we excavate.

Thus, we have long struggled to explain the meaning of the different types of material culture that we encounter and of the changes in material culture that we perceive. Essentially, much archaeology continues to use the foundations set by Gordon Childe in 1925 (drawing on the theories of, among others, a prominent German archaeologist, Gustav Kossinna), who considered that different suites of material culture could be used to identify different groups with different social commonalities. These groups were generally equated with human communities (known as ‘cultures’) – with the people of the past and the particular traits of behaviour and belief that identified them as separate from their neighbours. Thus, certain types of decorated pottery might define a particular ‘Culture’, let us call it the Round Bottomed Culture, which might, over time, evolve into another Culture with different pots, let us call this one the Square Bottomed Culture.

Childe was working without the benefit of radiocarbon analysis, and the rest of the suite of scientific techniques on which we rely today. He looked for patterns across the different types of archaeological evidence he had to hand, and the general assumption was made that as one element of material culture changed, so other elements would change too. This, it seemed, backed up the idea that social culture was reflected in material culture. Today, the system is cracking, and yet we still seem keen to fit the data into his paradigms.

It is not difficult to identify patterns of material culture, but we struggle with their explanation, and even more with the identification and explanation of the moments of change between them. It seems that it is hard to get away from the idea that when one element changes so should everything else. It is also hard to get away from the idea that material culture equals community. As we refine the evidence with which we work, so it becomes obvious that multiple elements of material culture rarely change together, yet few studies have tried to go back to basics and quantify the chronologies of change. It is, it seems, easier to live with the flawed but familiar understandings of the past. This has led to some big questions and discrepancies that we seem reluctant to challenge.

In the UK, our hunter-gatherer ancestors of the immediate post-glacial period, for example, used tiny stone tools that we call microliths. Microliths come in two basic ranges: Broad Blade Microliths and Narrow Blade Microliths. Many years ago, Roger Jacobi published a seminal work suggesting that the broad blade microliths were earlier and defined those communities able to maintain contact with Continental Europe while narrow blade microliths had developed later and were characteristic of subsequent communities developing within the more isolated environment of mainland Britain. Jacobi’s work has undoubtedly helped us to make sense of the Mesolithic communities of the British Isles but there are two problems with his explanation. Firstly, the assumption that a one-size-fits-all explanation will hold good for the whole of the UK: in actual fact, in the north of these islands the chronological precedence of broad blade microliths is still in question. Secondly, the assumption that microlith type equals community: it might, but then again it might not, and we have not really examined the alternatives.

Moving forward in time, the development of a highly decorated, flat bottomed, style of pottery in Neolithic Britain was at first considered to herald a new society: Piggott identified it as the ‘Rinyo-Clacton Culture’ in 1954. Today, we would be more circumspect in our interpretations: recent research has focussed on the possibilities of increasing complexity and sophistication developing within existing communities (Richards and Jones in their recent book); or the idea that it might form part of a package of goods associated with a complex belief system that spread across Britain to overlie existing society (as suggested in recent popular works). Or both!

We still find it hard to move away from the ingrained wisdom of archaeological greats such as Childe. But surely, the time is ripe to go back to basics and re consider some of those basic foundations on which our archaeological understanding rests. We have the tools to provide more sophisticated studies of material culture. We have the tools to examine whether apparently coincident change really occurs and, indeed, to look for other correlations for example between elements of material culture change and environmental dissonance.

Past archaeologists were seeking to explain the patterns, it seems to me that it is the explanation of change that forms the pressing question for our times.

The tradition of invention

tree stumps
Tree stumps in the inter-tidal zone, such as these at the Sands of Wright in Orkney, bear witness to a time when the landscape was very different. A landscape experienced by our prehistoric ancestors and, perhaps, memorialized in ancient stories.

Wherever I turn just now I seem to be collecting examples of the way in which stories, once considered mere fairy tales and myths, may contain an element of description of the past. In some ways, it seems obvious. We use narrative to explain the world around us – today we have several names for these narratives: ‘text books’; ‘academic papers’; ‘theses’, among others. For a long time, we have accepted that there is a second form of narrative, today we call it ‘fiction’, and we regard it very differently; more specifically we assign some of it to a category that encompasses nothing more than imaginative leisure. Fairy tales; mythology; legend: call it what you will, this type of story needs no rooting in reality. In this way, we consider it different to the world of novelistic fiction that we all read for relaxation. Novels are, usually, bounded by the rules of the world; when they are not we assign them special status: science fiction, magic realism and so on. Even these names, however, hint at the way in which it is hard for the writers to move beyond the world they know and love.

Fairy tales are often different. Strange things happen and it can be hard to identify with the settings, actions, and motives of the protagonists. It is sometimes difficult to imagine the minds that conjured up such outlandish ideas. One thing we are usually agreed upon is that these stories are old. They have been around, apparently, since the mists of time and, no doubt, their weirdness is due in part to the way they have been embellished with telling. How many parents have hushed their children with a bedtime fable, or admonished them with an awful story?

And yet, perhaps we should not be surprised that research around the world is identifying increasing examples where the apparently bizarre domain of an ancient story conceals an element of description that seems to be rooted in reality. These stories often relate to a time when the world was a little different, they often tell us about changes that took place in the landscape. They are being collected from Australia to the Americas and locations in between. In Africa and India there are accounts of the submergence beneath the waves of ancient temples and cities. In Atlantic Canada the Mi’kmaq tell of the tensions between Glooscap (a local hero), Beaver, and Whale which led to the breaching of the inner bay of the Minas Basin and infiltration of the tides from the Bay of Fundy. There are many stories from the coastal peoples of Australia, some surprisingly similar: the Aboriginal inhabitants of the Wellesley Islands recount that you could walk out to their island home before the inundation of the sea which was due to the actions of Garnguur, ‘the seagull woman’.

Nearer to home, the land of Cantre’r Gwaelod is said to have extended westwards from the present coastlands of Wales, in the area of Cardigan Bay, and many stories and poems tell of its loss. In my home archipelago of Orkney, the Bay of Otterswick in the island of Sanday was reputedly once home to a great forest, a fact recently confirmed by fieldwork which uncovered the remains of trees subsequently dated to c. 6,500 years ago.

These stories fascinate me because they were originally recounted by people for whom the configuration of the world was truly different. In many cases, it seems they saw strange and scary events and needed to explain them. The tales give voice to the people of the past in a way that archaeology is only just beginning to understand. Of course they have changed in the telling: often exaggerated, bent, augmented and tweaked, we can’t use them as a direct retelling of the past. But, the ultimate irony of archaeology is that, while we seek to learn about people, we have to achieve it through the study of inanimate objects. People, the essence of humanity, lie a long way from the sherds of pottery, stone flakes and soil discolorations that we enthuse over. And yet, strangely, in the current application of geoscience research to the investigation of oral histories, a small sense of the colour and depth of life in the past is beginning to break through.

Land and Sea

Beringia
The continental shelf between Asia and Alaska is shown clearly on this Google Earth image

I’ve been doing some research for a book I’m writing. I need to discuss various examples of submerged landscapes around the world. Of course, the first I have picked are my favourites, the closest to home: Doggerland, together with another favourite: Beringia.

Beringia unifies the continents of Asia and North America. It comprises an area of land and water, lying between the Mackenzie River in Canada and the Lena River in Russia and extending from the northern coastlands to the southern tip of Kamchatka. It takes its name from the narrow Bering Straits, named after the eighteenth century Danish navigator Vitus Bering (he was actually working for the Russian Czar, Peter the Great). The archaeology of Beringia includes the terrestrial sites on either side of the straits, as well as the submerged landscape.

Doggerland lies between Britain and the Continent. Its full extent and coastline are still known only through modelling, and interpretations of the data vary, but at the height of the last glaciation it is likely to have extended to the north of Shetland, only to disappear slowly as a result of sea-level rise and crustal readjustment in the millennia following deglaciation. Doggerland was no mere landbridge, recent research is investigating the topography, flora and fauna of the ancient land surfaces below the current sea bed.

Beringia is a significant location for the study of submerged landscapes, not least because of the way in which the terrestrial and underwater archaeology are regarded as part of a unified whole. This approach has, largely, yet to be achieved in studies closer to home; for example, research on Doggerland still focuses on a submerged landscape that is defined by the present-day UK and European coastlines to either side of it. When you think about it, this is a strange concept for archaeology because the whole point about Doggerland (and indeed any submerged landscape) is that the current coastlines did not exist when it was dry land and inhabited.

While, research about Doggerland is expressed as underwater investigations of a submerged landscape that operated in conjunction with the adjoining land masses, the focus for the archaeology of Beringia is different. It encompasses an environmental and cultural landscape that stretches across both dry and inundated terrain as a seamless whole. There are, of course, terrestrial and underwater elements to this research, depending on where it is based, but, in general, this produces a more holistic view.  It allows us to put the archaeology into its proper context.

This may seem like pedantry, but it is more significant than that. The work we do, and the narratives that we draw from it, are influenced by the pictures that we have in our minds eye and as long as we see the archaeology of submerged landscapes as separate to that of the land, then we will treat them differently.

This is important for two reasons, one to do with the past and one to do with the present. In general, the submerged landscapes around the world were last available for human activity from the millennia around the height of the last glaciation into the earliest millennia of the Holocene. This coincides with the time when modern humans were, in many cases, expanding their territories into new and unexplored lands. In several cases this expansion made use of lands that are now submerged, though access to any archaeological information has, until recently, been restricted by the depths of water that now cover them. Both Beringia and Doggerland are implicated in human expansions: in the case of Beringia the movement of peoples from Asia into North America and in the case of Doggerland, the exploration of northern Britain in the Late Upper Palaeolithic and the subsequent expansion of microlith-using Mesolithic communities in the Early Holocene. All of these episodes are crucial for our understanding of the creation of the modern world. But, in order to understand them fully, we need to focus on more than the underwater portion of the trip as this is a mere accident of history, no more than a taphonomic process.

All archaeologists today, therefore, whatever their chosen specialisations, require a basic grounding in the archaeology of submerged landscapes. It should be an automatic inclusion in any university course, as essential as radiocarbon dating, artefact analysis, or the Neolithic; as obvious as upland archaeology, the preservation conditions of peat, or the contribution of pollen analysis. The archaeology of submerged landscapes is not an add-on, but I fear that, for the most part, we still treat it as such. Hopefully, with time, the holistic philosophy of Beringia will permeate our mindsets.

Guardian Newspaper helps archaeology to reach the parts that other papers ignore

Neolithic houses
Reconstructed Neolithic houses at Stonehenge. Archaeology is as much about everyday, mundane elements of life as it is about the showy and the monumental

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.