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.


Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Scotland in a nutshell

Structural remains from Rum
Elusive remains of Mesolithic structures from the excavations at Kinloch, Rum, drawn by Alan Braby.

I’ve been asked to provide a five-minute summary of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Scotland. It is an interesting exercise, but it is difficult. I’ve not done it entirely to my satisfaction, but here is the ten-minute version!

The period between 14,000 and 6000 years ago was a time of considerable environmental transformation. Change was very much the norm for those who lived in Scotland at the end of the Palaeolithic and into the Mesolithic.

Perhaps the main transformation was the ending of the last great Ice Age and in some ways all things lead from this so we need to understand it. Another, relevant to the mobile hunter-gatherers of northwest Europe, was the generally rising sea-levels that led to the loss of Doggerland. But to highlight these masks a dynamic world that encompassed a wide range of change, all of which was relevant to the communities seeking to survive in Scotland – we can’t separate people from their environment. When considering human activity at any time we have to be fully aware of the world in which people lived and of the long-term and short-term challenges they faced. Among the relevant challenges for this period are the climatic deterioration known as the 8.2 ka cold event, which had widespread impact including a drop in temperature, increased windiness, and decreasing rainfall, though it was short and sharp – lasting for around two hundred years.

It is also important to remember that broadscale accounts mask specific events such as bad winters, droughts, winds and storm surges, and we do need to hold these in mind because it is precisely these events that impact upon the lives of individual communities. The single event that has received perhaps the most attention in recent years is the tsunami associated with the Storegga Slide. Dated with increasing precision to around 6150 BC it would have had devastating impact. Tsunami deposits have been found at heights over 20m in Shetland and it is likely that there was a knock on effect everywhere, compounded by the fact that it was unpredictable and occurred during the height of the 8.2 ka cold event.

Moving to the people: the inhabitation of Scotland during the Late Glacial has been a matter of some debate characterised by increasing evidence from finds of stone tools, of periodic human activity prior to the Younger Dryas (the re-establishment of glacial conditions between roughly 10,500 BC – 9700 BC), and culminating in the on-going excavation by Steven Mithen and Karen Wicks of an Ahrensburgian type assemblage (about 12,000 years old) from Rubha Port an t-Seilich on the west-coast island of Islay. The precise arrival of Mesolithic communities in Scotland is equally shrouded in uncertainty. We follow the stone tools because they have survived but do we always understand them? Broad blade microlith technologies of a type used to identify the earliest Mesolithic communities in England do occur in Scotland but they are rare and, as yet, not securely dated so that interpretation of the activity that led to them is weak. Narrow blade microlith technologies are more common and, in general, may be dated from the mid ninth millennium BC onward. Setting aside the theoretical weaknesses of equating tool technology with cultural community, the overall picture is one of increasing evidence for hunter-gatherer groups, and probable diversity between communities, from this period onwards.

A challenging aspect of the evidence for Mesolithic Scotland is the way in which the majority of sites are coastal, and we have to ask ourselves whether this reflects archaeological reality? The existing evidence suggests the presence of highly specialised communities well able to exploit the marine and littoral resources, and for whom water-born transport may have facilitated coastal mobility, but how much did they penetrate the uplands? We assume they did: emerging data illustrates the use of the montane interior even during times of climatic stress such as the 8.2 ka event. Are these the same groups? In some places it may well be that a single group made use of a particular river system, but in other areas research suggests that separate coastal and inland groups existed.

One aspect is notable: the growing evidence for structural remains excavated over the last 30 years. Much has been made of the traces of post-built circular structures that are interpreted as semi-permanent. In Scotland these occur within the ninth millennium BC, though that at Mount Sandel in the north of Ireland has recently been re-dated to the early eighth millennium BC. They seem to have been in use during a time of stable climatic conditions, yet at a time when relative sea-level change (and concomitant land loss) was likely to have been most rapid. Their occupation occurs prior to the 8.2 ka cold event and to the Storegga tsunami. Many, but not all, occur in close proximity to the present coast.

These structures are not the only evidence we have for Mesolithic habitation however, other remains include light shelters and foundation slots. They occur across Scotland from Orkney to the Solway Firth. Most are found near to the coast (perhaps reflecting the evidence in general), but inland sites are being discovered (most recently at high altitude in the Cairngorms). With the exception of the site at Morton (where the interpretation is difficult), all yielded narrow blade microliths. Many sites have early dates, back to some of the earliest evidence for the Mesolithic in Scotland, but there are sites with later dates such as Cnoc Coig, though in general the later Mesolithic archaeology is less well represented and less well understood. On some sites a combination of different structural remains has been recovered.

Interpretation of the more robust structures has proved challenging to Mesolithic archaeologists seeking to validate paradigms of a mobile society. One solution has been to tie them to evidence of environmental instability; are they associated with increased competition for resources as the Doggerland landmass diminished? Actually I think it is more likely that they are a result of stability. Be that as it may, if we wish to create a more complete understanding of this period then it is necessary to consider all the evidence and not select specific ‘interesting’ elements.

Physical evidence apart – what about the people? There is very, very little skeletal evidence for Mesolithic Scotland. So, how many people were there? Estimation of population size where the archaeological record is demonstrably patchy is fraught with difficulty. In 1962 Atkinson suggested a total population for Scotland of about 70, but this has long been considered an underestimate. Tolan-Smith suggested that by the end of the seventh millennium BC population had reached maximum carrying capacity, but he does not actually say how he calculated this, nor give any numbers. More recently Wicks and Mithen have tackled the problem in a different way, using radiocarbon dates as a proxy; they don’t provide absolute numbers either, but their work is interesting because by postulating the possible reduction of population in western Scotland during, and after, the 8.2 ka cold event they are suggesting that population density was large enough to be challenged by the deterioration in environmental conditions.

To close, it is very easy to present the Mesolithic as some sort of utopia. But we have to be wary of this. We are dealing with a long period, a long time ago. Ethnographic work on hunter-gatherers should remind us that there is no average community, no average territory and no average life-style. Nevertheless, what we do see is that life as a hunter-gatherer is finely balanced. Sophisticated knowledge of the environment is weighed against all sorts of issues such as population density, environmental stability, and mobility in order to build a viable long-term lifestyle. This can be knocked out of kilter. Change, in any one part of the system, invariably affects all other aspects. It is an exciting aspect of modern archaeological studies that rather than simply gathering data we can now start to play around and look at elements such as this. We assume that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were consummate survivors (how else would we be here), life was undoubtedly difficult, but we have started to see examples of adaption and that is very gratifying.

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!