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.

Searching for the Scottish Late Upper Palaeolithic

Intrigued by the emerging evidence for Late Upper Palaeolithic activity in Scotland, Torben Bjarke Ballin and I have put together a short paper which was published earlier this week in the Journal of Lithic Studies. We are particularly interested in the potential of existing lithic collections to yield finds that went unrecognised in the past. There are several reasons for this. Often, it was just not possible to examine large field collections in the detail necessary. But also, current paradigms do exert a very real bias on the way that we think, with the result that identifications can be missed. Many years ago I worked on a flint assemblage from Lunanhead, Angus. It looked vaguely Late Upper Palaeolithic, but because I knew there was no evidence for Palaeolithic in Scotland, I worked hard to make it fit into Early Neolithic paradigms. To have published it as Palaeolithic would have required a very strong argument because it went against the accepted wisdom of the time, and I was just not courageous enough. Torben has recently been re-examining that assemblage and, I am pleased to say, that he feels able to confirm my initial hunch, that it might be early. I’m hoping that he will have time to publish a new version of the flint assemblage in due course.

Meantime, you have to make do with our new paper, which is available to download here.

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.