The Value of Community Archaeology

The Mound, Loch Fleet, by Telford
This bridge was completed in 1816 under the direction of Thomas Telford. It was designed as a bridge for the road north and to control the ingress of seawater into Loch Fleet.

I spent two days in Inverness at the start of June participating in a meeting to start a review of archaeology across Highland Region. It was organised by ARCH, Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands, and it was a well-attended couple of days with some fascinating papers and lots of good discussion. Continue reading The Value of Community Archaeology

New Paper Published: Mesolithic in the Cairngorms

The upper reaches of the River Dee in the Cairngorm Mountains

For the past few years I have worked with a number of colleagues (and friends) to examine the traces of Mesolithic activity high in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland. Excitingly, one of the sites, excavated by Graeme Warren and colleagues with a team from University College, Dublin, yielded evidence for a small structure, occupied around 8200 cal BP. This is particularly interesting Continue reading New Paper Published: Mesolithic in the Cairngorms

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, Continue reading Hit by nostalgia

Migratory species: the summer in Orkney

ness reduced

The excavations at the Ness of Brodgar are a big attraction for summer visitors to Orkney.

Orkney in the summer is a lively place for archaeologists. It is fun to try and spot the archaeological diggers when I am doing my supermarket shopping in the evenings. There are usually two or three excavations taking place and a lifetime of digging has given me some sort of second sense about the lean, hungry look of those searching through the items that have been reduced in price because they are nearing their sell by date.

Of course, the main attraction for the diggers is the opportunity to work at Ness of Brodgar. It is a big excavation, and many of the team return year after year to follow the progress of uncovering the amazing structures there and keep up with the friends they made in previous seasons. At the weekends you might see folk who have come over to Mainland Orkney for supplies from Links of Noltland in Westray, or sometimes there is another team up working on one of the Viking sites, or on the chambered tombs in Rousay. It is nice for me, as I can catch up with those who live south – some of the diggers are colleagues, some are people I have known since they were students at universities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow.

There is another sort of archaeological visitor too. As word about the archaeology in Orkney spreads around the globe, so each year brings a steady stream of people undertaking their own research. Many are students who have chosen to write dissertations and research projects on aspects of Orkney archaeology. Some come from the UK, but there is an increasing number from overseas. Quite often they will have come across one or other of my guidebooks and, finding me online, they email to see if they can meet up and chat about their ideas. When I can, I agree because it is a great way to find out about a whole range of projects and points of view that I’d never contemplate otherwise. Sometimes, they are not archaeology students but rather architects, artists, or ecologists. Their outlook and the things that excite them about the past can be very different and interesting. It is particularly rewarding when I receive an email attachment months later – a few will send me their completed work and I always enjoy reading it. This year’s visitors have included a painter, a poet, and, most recently, a couple of students in photo journalism from the University of Missouri who were filming the Neolithic archaeology and comparing it to the life of the farmers of Orkney today. I’m hoping that they might be able to return to Orkney with their completed film, because it would be nice for people to see it and hear about their work.

That brings me nicely to the final summer visitor – each year we seem to see an increase in professional teams here to film, especially at the Ness of Brodgar. Television crews come from all around the world to catch the action in Orkney. The main crew this year are from the BBC and they are filming a three-part series. I understand that the presenters include Neil Oliver (who worked as part of my excavation team on Rum when he was a student at the University of Glasgow many years ago), Chris Packham, and Andy Torbet. I spent quite a bit of time with the team when they were scoping their filming; it is a good opportunity to discuss the landscape change that I’m interested in as well as the archaeology that I write about in my books such as ‘Between the Wind and the Water. Actually, once filming begins it is a hectic schedule of rushing around to film at various locations across the islands, interspersed with hanging around waiting for the light to change or the weather to change. At those times I feel glad that I opted for the easy career of writing about it all from the comfort of my study.

Once the winter comes, however, it is hard not to feel a little smug – watching the finished product on television and remembering back to the summer’s conversations. Then I can look out of my window and feel even smugger that I am still here – at the heart of it all.



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.