The Archaeological ‘Truth’?

Stonehenge reconstruction
Archaeology is all about telling stories – here in the interpretive centre at Stonehenge.

As you know one of my interests lies in the nature of archaeological truth.

Actually, I don’t believe that there is any such thing as ‘truth’ in archaeology – we can no more be certain of the motivations, or even the actions, that took place in the past, than we can of the reasons behind the things we did yesterday. But when we are writing we are all, as archaeologists, aware of this. Or are we? Given this lack of definitive proof we have to accept that without supposition there would be no archaeology.  But we have to learn how to use it properly. I think we have fallen into an archaeological shorthand that means that instead of saying: ‘the possible Neolithic houses at the site that we interpret as a village and which we call today Skara Brae’, we say: ‘The Neolithic houses at the village of Skara Brae’. Archaeological readers, we hope, will understand the caveats that go into any archaeological statement.

With this in mind, most authors will, at some point, preface their books with a statement to the effect that the interpretation presented may well change in the future. I don’t think most people have a problem with this – they accept that any discipline moves forward and the popular media keep people well aware of the advent and benefits of new archaeological techniques. When they were putting together the interpretive displays at Skara Brae, David Clarke and Pat Maguire tried to get around the issue of highlighting speculation by explicitly using a normal font face for ‘fact’ and italics for ‘supposition’. This works well – it looks good and does not prevent people from reading the text, but I wonder how many people have read enough to be aware of the reasons behind the change in type face?

Sometimes when we are working with non-archaeological colleagues, or those new to the profession, it can be more complex. When I was a recent graduate I felt strongly that because we could not verify the functional names we gave stone tools, like arrowhead, and because many pieces probably had multiple functions, we should eschew those functional names for more neutral terms. I was probably a bit of a pain about it. Over time, I realised that people did hold a more nuanced view of the terminology than I gave them credit for and I gradually relaxed. Now that I am older I find that the tables are turned and it is my turn to explain my use of traditional terminology.

One element of this that make me curious is the way that people fixate on some elements of our archaeological interpretation to the exclusion of others. Words such as ‘ritual’ or ‘ceremonial’ are guaranteed to raise the hackles of the interpretive purist, whereas they are much more likely to let terms such as settlement, or burial, go by unnoticed. To me these are equally laden. The ‘tombs’ of Neolithic Orkney seem to have been designed for so much more than simple disposal of the dead. And one of my personal bugbears is the unqualified use of ‘settlement’ when really we have no idea what went on. How do we define settlement even when it does involve an over night stop – could the camp-site that results from a group of 14 year olds celebrating the summer solstice be called a settlement? Is it domestic? I find that I am constantly seeking alternatives that are less value-laden – such as the bland ‘activity site’, or even ‘occupation’, when I am working on Mesolithic material. But then, of course, I don’t have burial sites or even many possible ceremonial sites, to worry me in Mesolithic Scotland.

Are we getting lazy at writing, and slow to re-examine the evidence for our deeply held beliefs? Possibly. Perhaps we are not good at welcoming new people into the profession and listening to what they have to say. We are certainly guilty of presenting unfounded suggestions as ‘gospel truth’. But, of course, we are just telling stories. We all need to remember that.

Creating Stories

Storm at sea
Watching a storm approach – when you live in the country the weather becomes something visual.

The vagaries of recent days have reminded me of one of the big differences that I have experienced since I moved north. Here, I experience the weather totally differently to the way in which it got me when I lived in the city.

In the city the weather was something that you felt. It was cold, or it might be wet, sometimes it was windy, occasionally it was hot. Here, there is so much more variety to it. For starters, the weather is something that you see, almost more than you feel. I love to watch big storms swirling across the sea towards the house. Once upon a time I found it hard to imagine the properties of air as something visual apart from the obvious times when fog or darkness interrupted my vision. Today I find myself obsessed with the sky and the clouds. I’m constantly looking up to see what is coming and from where. Sometimes it is just for the sheer beauty of it. Sometimes it helps me to prepare before I go out. Can I hang the washing out? Only if the white horses on the sea are not very pronounced. Which way round should I park the car? Bitter experience has taught me of the power of the wind on an open car door – more than once (I’m not a fast learner).

It has made me realise just how much our modern lives differ from those of the people we study in the past. It is not just the big things – stone tools and the lack of electricity. It is the total immersion in everything. It is hard enough for us to appreciate the way in which life can hang in the balance for the small scale subsistence farmer in a marginal environment. But the emotional experience of living is just so different as you travel back. No modern medicine – alters your perception of death; no fridges and freezers – alters your attitude to food; no central heating – alters your feelings about cold, clothing and food (have another look at War and Peace); no combustion engine – alters your perception of distance and home; no social networking – alters your understanding of friendship and communication. It doesn’t mean that we should not attempt to unpick the lives of our ancestors. But it does mean that we need to be aware of the boundaries within which we work.

I heard an interesting story on the radio about the problems of getting information from people today. Apparently, if you ask a simple question of a group of 100 men and 100 women you tend to get very different answers from the men to the women, whereas mathematically the patterning should be similar. But if you suggest that you will be checking the veracity of their answers, the difference vanishes. This, the presenter said, demonstrates the unpredictability of people. Left to our own devices we often ignore the rules. It is an elegant illustration of the conundrum that lies at the heart of archaeology.  As archaeologists we rely on the predictability of the people of the past and our own empathy with their imagined lives in order to build our interpretations of the evidence that we find. Sadly, not only are people unpredictable, but also our empathetic powers might have limitations.

So, archaeology is challenging – no news there. The upside is that as long as we take it on board that we are just creating and refining stories, there is always another one, another version to be woven out of the threads of understanding that we learn to play with every day.