The Travel Bug

Farm museum
Orkney provides a range of experience for the visitor, the farm museum here, at Kirbuster, is a nice contrast to the prehistoric remains.

I’ve been working with a well-established travel company who want to develop a tour of Orkney for their guests. It is a fun thing to do, but it is more complex than you might think. To be honest, once the tour is up and running, being a guide-lecturer is pretty much of a doddle. You are paid to visit first-rate sites with which you are familiar and chat about them with a bunch of interesting people. The conversation usually ranges widely and friendships are formed. It is always an intense experience, but it is one that I enjoy.

There are, however, several different elements necessary to build a tour from scratch and it is important not to leave any of them unexplored. First of all, of course, it is necessary to select the sites. In a place like Orkney that is not as easy as it may seem. There are so many interesting sites here that it can be more a matter of which visits to leave out. Some don’t have adequate parking. Others don’t lend themselves to coach tours (locations where only two or three people can enter at a time for example).

Then you need to group those sites into meaningful days, and decide in which order the days should come. First time visitors to Orkney are always keen to see the World Heritage sites so I tend to suggest that they come first. It also makes sense to visit Skara Brae before the other Neolithic sites because that is where you get a glimpse of the everyday life of the average Neolithic islander. Wherever they came from in Orkney, the people who knew the stone circles, buried their dead in the tombs, and experienced Ness of Brodgar, their lives were rooted in the domestic routine that was played out in communities of houses similar to those at Skara Brae. Similarly, it is hard to understand the significance of the Renaissance vision of Earl Patrick Stewart as expressed in the Earl’s Palace in Kirkwall, if you have not explored the northern foundations of life in Orkney in preceding centuries under the Norse Earldom at sites like the Brough of Birsay or Quoygrew.

Finally, it is, of course, important to combine outdoor sites with the museums. But we have more museums than many people think – which to include? The Orkney Museum in Kirkwall holds the artefact collections that provide colour to the framework set by the archaeological sites. The two farm museums offer an atmospheric background to more recent times, Stromness museum has an eclectic collection that ranges widely with something for all interests, the Scapa Flow visitor Centre at Lyness holds fascinating material related to the two World Wars and in particular the scuttling of the German Fleet, and the Pier Arts Centre houses an important collection of art, not to mention local and traveling exhibitions. And that is not all of them.

There is an order to things.

But that is not all. With the basic framework comes the nitty-gritty. How long should we spend at each site? Where should we have lunch? Where should we stay? What about evening meals? Lectures? Free time? It is like doing some sort of immersive jigsaw puzzle. Luckily, I don’t have to work it all out myself, there are those much more experienced than I in the logistical detail. My job is mainly to advise on presenting 10,000 years of island culture at its best. It is not all archaeology – it is also about helping people to understand Orkney today, and the way in which the past has contributed to the present. It is nice to try to sneak in little things that others might miss, or off-the-beaten-track sites that you might not access if you were not in an organised group. Visiting remote and small places like Orkney can be quite daunting for people who are not sure of the infrastructure up here which is why it can be easier to come on a tour.

And all of this is without consideration of the current debates as to whether, or not, tourism is ‘a good thing’. That, I think, would be a whole new blog post and I’m not going to get drawn into it here.

In this case, anyway, I think we have done a good job. I’ve enjoyed thinking about how to present Orkney so that people really have a fun, and interesting holiday. They are not going to see everything, but hopefully they will leave feeling fulfilled and with the knowledge to return one day should they wish to explore other parts of the islands.

New publication

A new book summarizes the Quaternary environments of the submerged landscapes of the European continental shelf. It is a detailed overview that extends from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and includes some general chapters on sea-level and climate as well as the preservation conditions that impact on the sites that once lay on these hidden landscapes. Needless to say it is an expensive and academic tome, but invaluable for those working in the field, or those seeking to improve management and investigation. It is part of a series of books produced as output for the Splashcos project, the other two being Under the Sea: archaeology and palaeolandscapes of the continental shelf, and Coastline changes of the Baltic Sea from south to east, both published by Springer. Together they make a formidable addition to the growing collection of material on submerged landscapes. I’ve co-authored a chapter in the first volume.  I’m now frantically reading it all in an attempt to keep my forthcoming text book on sea-level change and submerged landscapes for archaeologists up to date!

Circling the Square: part two

Maeshowe
This image of Maeshowe published by James Farrer in 1862 shows, very clearly, the encircling henge, which tends to be forgotten in many accounts of the tomb. Incidentally, it also shows the appearance of the mound before the reconstruction of the roof by the Ministry of Works in the early twentieth century.

Recently, a team of specialists drawn from the Universities of Leicester and Southampton announced the find of a new structure within the south circle at Avebury. It is an exciting find that reminds us that these ancient and well-loved places still preserve their secrets. I found it particularly interesting because of the way in which the new formation, said to be composed of megaliths that were removed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, comprises a square that is set within the heart of the surviving stone circle.

The team are, apparently, surprised to find a square megalithic setting, I can’t comment on that as my knowledge of megaliths around the UK is not, sadly, comprehensive, though I would point them to a paper published by Tim Darvill in the spring of 2016 which celebrates just this design at Stonehenge. I would also suggest that, were they to look north, they might find that the use of a square design, and indeed the overall design of a rectangle set within a circle is far from unusual. In fact, in Orkney, monuments comprising a square setting within a circle were all the rage among the special places of the late Neolithic. Perhaps the best known is Structure Eight at Barnhouse, where one is able to enter the reconstruction and experience for oneself how this type of architecture may have functioned. Another, well known example, is Structure Ten at Ness of Brodgar, only partly excavated but of similar design – contrast the angularity of the interior with the rounded nature of the exterior.

This internal angularity with external rounding is also seen in the house structure at Skara Brae, perhaps it is just how one did things in the Neolithic? But there is another site that suggests it may have a deeper meaning. Maeshowe is known for the circular platform on which it sits – yet the tomb interior is beautifully angular. Curiously, several archaeologists have suggested that there may have been a free standing rectangular stone setting on the platform at Maeshowe prior to the building of the tomb. And, of course, many of the stone-built chambered tombs of the north comprise rectangular chambers set within a rounded mound.

My guess is that were we to have a similarly detailed record of late Neolithic architecture right across the UK, we would find other uses of the square within the circle. Hopefully, the application of refined geophysics to sites away from the research heartlands of Wiltshire and Orkney will start to find them. What it actually meant is anyone’s guess, though I have noted before that it is still a powerful symbol (with many meanings) today. The new find at Avebury is indeed significant, but I’d caution against celebrating it as unique – to my mind it is more interesting if it starts to flesh out the nascent patterning of monumental settings that we are beginning to recognise across Neolithic Britain.

Hit by nostalgia

Excavating in the 1970s
Excavations at the site of Killellan Farm on Islay. I worked as a volunteer here in 1976 under the direction of Colin Burgess. As I remember we set up camp in the grounds of the Bowmore distillery and Colin organised food for everyone in a local hall.

The excavation season is upon us and adverts for diggers have been landing thick and fast in my inbox together with posts about work starting at several significant sites. It made me think about my own days as a ‘digger’.  In those days, you consulted the Council for British Archaeology Excavation Calendar in your local library and then sent off letters to prospective projects. It was a slow process. There were some perks, however, that seem to be lacking today; most notably money. Paying to work on a site was almost unknown, and only for the rich. Usually you were paid a weekly subsistence amount and, as I seem to remember, accommodation was arranged by the excavation project. This had the advantage that we all stayed together and a good dig social life soon built up. Friendships were made and held strong, I am still in touch with some of the people who I worked with in the early 70s and it always brings back memories to see a familiar name mentioned in the press or on social media, and learn what they are doing now.

The biggest advantage to this system was that it was possible to avoid serious gainful employment over the summer and gain valuable archaeological skills (and friends) while escaping the inevitable loss of savings that would arise from similar work today. If you chose your excavation sites carefully you could cover a wide range of periods, techniques and environments, all of which built up experience to stand one in good stead in the long run. And, in my day, the universities still had funds available to help those students wishing to excavate abroad: in that way, I got to work at Lazaret Cave in France and Hayonim Cave in Israel. It was often a steep learning curve, but one that was well worthwhile. My acquired skills were not restricted to archaeology: there were trips to hospital; catering for large numbers; the prevention of vermin; negotiation of foreign visas; even (surreally) the use of firearms. I can honestly say that my time as a youthful excavator helped to prepare me for a wide range of possible situations in later life.

I have no doubt that participation in an excavation today is just as rewarding in its own way. But, like all those who begin to see the younger generation filling roles they once occupied, I can’t help a feeling of nostalgia for times past. Ironically, perhaps the greatest lesson I learnt was that, having spent some time envying the responsibilities and role of the ‘site supervisors’, as soon as I found myself perched on the edge of the trench with a clipboard and a pencil I realised that I had made a horrible mistake. At that point, I wanted nothing more than to find myself back down in the trench at the centre of the action and with nary a care in the world.

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.