The Passage of Time in Neolithic Orkney

Excavations taking place at Ness of Brodgar. Can we really compare the development of this site with that of other Neolithic archaeology around Orkney?

Many years ago (more than I care to remember) I used to meet with a group of archaeological colleagues for a relaxing drink on a Friday night in Edinburgh. Most of us were involved, at one time or another, in working on the Neolithic archaeology of Orkney. Even then Orkney was regarded as something special. Being archaeologists we rarely left our work totally behind but rather used the time to discuss some of the most pressing dilemmas in our archaeological interpretations. I remember animated debates as to the meaning of the two very different pottery styles to be found in Neolithic Orkney. Did they, as some people thought, overlap, or had one supplanted the other. Radiocarbon dating had not long been employed and it was still something of a blunt tool – in many ways it did not lend much to our discussion. Another favourite topic was the meaning of the different styles of tombs and houses to be found in Orkney. It all seemed very bipartite. Were we simply observing the transformations in society that lead to changes in material culture? But was it a simple linear, evolutionary change? Or were there more nefarious elements at play. In short, did the advent of new styles of tomb and house (and other material culture) mean the advent of new people with new ways, did it signal some sort of social unrest or change, or was it just a matter of time?

You will notice that the uncertainties of dating at the time were such that we were able to assume that everything had changed at much the same time.

Now, I read with interest a new paper, by Alex Bayliss and colleagues, recently published in Antiquity. Alex is one of the wizards of radiocarbon dating. Using a statistical technique, known as Bayesian analysis, she is able to produce much tighter estimates of age from calibrated radiocarbon dates in conjunction with existing understanding of the archaeological record. Together with her colleagues they have been looking at the dates available for the sites of Neolithic Orkney, and taking many new dates as well, in order to provide a detailed chronology for Neolithic Orkney and consider what it may mean.

It is an interesting, thought provoking paper that pulls together a huge amount of information. It has received much attention since it was published. There is a lot of useful information relating to issues like the length of use of specific sites, and the ways in which they may relate to one another. But I am left questioning some of their conclusions, and somehow I ended up feeling a little disappointed. One of the problems with publishing in Antiquity is that you have to keep your papers short, and, in this case, it meant that the evidence needed to back up their statements was often lacking.

There is useful information relating to the antiquity of timber houses in Orkney together with the stone buildings that became more common. There is information relating to the dating of different types of tomb, and to the pottery types. The general conclusion seems to be that some social differentiation and the concurrence of new ideas took place fairly early on in Neolithic Orkney (the overlapping of the different styles in tombs and pottery for example), but that around 2800 BC something happened that led to a geographical shift in settlements and the development of larger houses and more elaborate pottery. The authors note that events in the Neolithic heartland of Stenness-Brodgar were, however, very different.

One of my problems relates to this comparison of the sites in the Stenness-Brodgar area with those elsewhere in Orkney. Stenness-Brodgar is a very different place with a very different type of site. Ness of Brodgar is discussed as a ‘place of human dwelling’. Now there is not much yet published about Ness, but all the material that one can find leads one to believe that it is not a common or garden settlement. Surely, it is not, therefore, surprising to find that events there were different to those elsewhere. The authors are not, as I understand it, comparing like with like.

There is also a general assumption that the archaeology of Orkney is such that the known sites provide a representative sample of what went on in the past. I find this very doubtful. Not only does general research suggest that this is not so, the known sites represent only the places where we have looked for (or found), sites. But also, the very existence of sites like Ness of Brodgar, totally unknown until some ten years ago, tells us that we don’t know everything about Neolithic Orkney.

The authors conclude by suggesting that the variety of style and material culture in the earlier centuries of Neolithic Orkney may represent a competitive society in which communities sought to outdo each other in the monuments and houses that they built and the goods that they used. In this, the advent of elaborate flat-bottomed Grooved Ware pottery and different types of tomb might be seen as a way for one community to differentiate itself from others. Continual elaboration of house form and material culture is used to back this up and the paper talks of political tension and social concerns. Finally, the arrival of the Orkney vole is brought into play as a proxy for the introduction of new ideas and possibly even people directly from Europe in the later fourth millennium cal BC.

As I say it is an interesting paper. But I am left wondering whether, in nearly 40 years, we have really advanced at all in our archaeological deliberations. The arguments of the paper sound so much like those I used to hear in the pub. The dates are more tightly constrained, we have more sites, more variation in our sites, and, perhaps, more sophistication in our ideas. But I don’t really feel that I have learnt anything new. The dates presented confirm the old conundrums, they don’t explain them. For that we are left with unsupported speculation, just as we always have been. As you know, I don’t believe in an ‘archaeological truth’, and I guess we all love speculation, but we need to be careful not to suggest that it is founded in scientific fact.

Conversations with Magic Stones

Conversations with Magic Stones
View of the main cases in the exhibition at The Pier Arts Centre, Stromness

I was recently asked to review a rather interesting exhibition. The review has now been published in The Orcadian and I have their permission, and that of The Pier Arts Centre who commissioned it, to publish it here.

Any exhibition bears a similarity to an onion – it is many layered. Not only will it be viewed by people of different backgrounds, each of whom takes away a different experience, but, in addition, a range of separate meanings is, inevitably, built in by the creators and their objects. Consider then, the fate of the hapless reviewer when confronted by an exhibition that not only presents several collections of material in interesting juxtapositions but also does so in separate locations. Such is my lot.

Conversations With Magic Stones takes place in three locations: The Orkney Museum; The Pier Arts Centre; and Stromness Museum. It makes use of four categories of material: contemporary art; modern/classical art; Orkney archaeology; ethnographic pieces.

The largest display occurs in the Orkney Museum where we are treated to a spectacular collection of ancient stone tools from Orkney. They range from as much as 12,000 years old to around 3000 years old, some are piled high, others neatly set out in isolation, a few nestle in the tins and boxes where they have rested since their discovery in years gone by. Alongside them, on the walls and in the cases, are works of art that draw on their inspiration. A shiny ‘carved stone ball’ of bronze by Babette Bartelmass plays with the idea of material as immutable, as do flint axes of glass and metal by Paul Musgrove. The latter’s prints, which layer images of the artefacts under site plans, notes and old labeling, create a new view of the past, as seen through the obscuring discolourations of time. Wall panels provide an encyclopaedic background of information. Through these we learn of the collectors who amassed many of the pieces on display.

In the Pier Art Centre, we are taken in to the studio, and mind, of Barbara Hepworth whose comments about ancient stone tools prompted the title and thrust of the work. Seeing her sculptures in juxtaposition with a selection of Orkney artefacts is chilling. It is a none too subtle reminder that for everything, even the most perfect art displayed in isolation on a carefully designed pedestal, there is a backstory and a context.

After the archaeological staginess of the Orkney Museum and the clarity and light of the Pier Art Centre, the Stromness Museum comes as something of a shock. The cases here are deliberately busy, the objects weird and wonderful, and the stories exotic. Here we learn of the pieces that found their way to Orkney from overseas, of the roles they played in their homelands and of the meanings they brought to Orkney. It is an evocative reminder of the way in which our roots help to shape the people we become and one cannot help wondering about the connections made between the worlds of past and present.

Overall, the exhibition creates some powerful impressions. The focus on the work of collectors, early excavators, and artists, invites us to enter a state of intellectual curiosity. We meet the people who sought to make sense of the relics of the past that were coming out of the ground across Orkney. People who cared passionately about the objects they were finding, and who handed this interest down to their descendants many of whom still treasure the pieces. With the objects come stories and a wonderful by-product of the work has been to enshrine these memories for the future, to prolong the life of the objects from their prehistoric origins into the twenty-first century and to lift them from fodder for archaeology into more complex beings – as the catalogue says: ‘an afterlife of things’.

It is an exhibition that, generally, eschews the principals of archaeological display. Photos lack scales, pieces lack provenance. This can be annoying for the academic viewer but it does avoid clutter and transforms the general atmosphere into that of an art exhibition. In reality, there is a catalogue and the Orkney museum does provide a handy computer to access data such as location, date and context through the project website. The feeling of having strayed from archaeology into art is emphasised by the wonderful photographs. It is a rare photographer indeed who can provide close up images of tooling or texture that will allow enlargement fit for a wall panel. In the Pier Art Centre this theme is pushed further as conventional archaeological terms are dropped and the artefacts become part of the artist’s studio.

Staying with the Pier, there is, perhaps unconsciously, an element of hagiography in the way in which the only woman to really feature in the exhibition has this location devoted to her. There is, for this reviewer, a twinge of regret that the women who undoubtedly collected elsewhere in Scotland, were not apparently collecting in Orkney (too busy minding the farms perhaps?). Yet, whatever happened in the past, it is worth noting that the exhibition team are more equally divided: they should be congratulated for a challenging, thought provoking display.

You will find the project website here

And the artist’s catalogue here

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.