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 Maze of Possibility

Structure 10 at Ness of Brodgar
The outer wall of Structure 10 at Ness of Brodgar under excavation in 2011.

The Guardian recently published a brilliant piece about new legislation in India which has banned the sale of alcohol within 500 metres of state and national highways (Safi 2017). The response to this has been the construction of various mazes so that prospective customers entering the grounds of the bar are required to walk the 500 metres before reaching their goal.

Have a look at the photo in the paper. The result, as you will see, is a layout that bears a remarkable resemblance to the layout of some of the well-known Neolithic buildings in Orkney such as Structure 8 at Barnhouse and Structure 10 at Ness of Brodgar. Both of these buildings have been planned so that they exercise careful control over the movement of those who entered, forcing them to travel further in their quest for the centre. I’m not suggesting that Neolithic Orkney was subject to the same stringent legislation over alcohol as twenty-first century India, but I do think that the Indian example provides a fantastic reminder that, where human behaviour is concerned, all is not always as it might seem.

As archaeologists, we tend to assume that the fancy layout, size, and level of control that these Neolithic structures illustrate all point towards the fact that they were high status buildings, perhaps even buildings that were not open to the common populace. India provides an excellent example where that interpretation would go horribly wrong.

It is always easier to identify and describe structure than it is to explain or interpret it. The problem is that we do, occasionally, confuse the two. We are often in danger of falling in to the trap that the visual complexity of something equates to complexity of purpose. Thus, we can see (we think), that the complex design of these buildings was designed to control the movement of people within them. But we need to be careful of assuming that that control fulfills the requirements of a complex society. It might, indeed, do so; but then again, it might not. We need more information.

Where interpretation (whether of buildings or artefacts) is concerned I always encourage people to read as widely as possible. Only by looking as far afield as you can, at as many contrasting situations as you can find, in as many different places, environments and times as possible, can you open your mind to the myriad of alternatives that our ancestors might have exercised. You have, of course, also to take into account context and related material culture. Nevertheless, this is a timely reminder never to rely on one or two apparent parallels that seem to bolster accepted wisdom, or the theories we happen to like. It is also a reminder that more complex architecture and layouts do not always equate to higher status, or even, dare I say it, higher purpose.

Sometimes, it seems, fancy architecture can, actually, be quite mundane in reality.

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.

The Invisibility of Women

cwj knapping
Women flintknappers – breaking the gender barriers of prehistory? Or just a modern misconception – maybe the gender barrier was never there? Maybe it varied from place to place? Can we tell?

A recent paper in The Conversation, a news platform based on academic writing and research, asks ‘Where were all the women in the Stone Age?’.

It is a good question and the author is to be credited for posing it. Unfortunately, the ensuing text is full of contradiction and occasional bias. Nevertheless, it is a topic that should, perhaps, be required thinking for all of us who work in prehistory at least once a year. To approach it, we need to go back to the basics.

Continue reading The Invisibility of Women