The Value of Community Archaeology

The Mound, Loch Fleet, by Telford
This bridge was completed in 1816 under the direction of Thomas Telford. It was designed as a bridge for the road north and to control the ingress of seawater into Loch Fleet.

I spent two days in Inverness at the start of June participating in a meeting to start a review of archaeology across Highland Region. It was organised by ARCH, Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands, and it was a well-attended couple of days with some fascinating papers and lots of good discussion. Continue reading The Value of Community Archaeology

Persistent Places

St Magnus cathedral
St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall is undoubtedly important, but not necessarily the deciding factor when people come to live here.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of persistent places. That is the idea that a place may be occupied for centuries, even longer, on the basis that it is special. A sacred site, for example, may continue to be visited or occupied long after the original activity, and perhaps meaning, has ceased. A landscape may have particular significance that lingers in local consciousness and makes it special and thus attractive to the community.

We often see activity in a location well beyond the lifespan of the original structure or event. Brochs, for example, frequently have surrounding settlements that continue in use well after the original broch tower has fallen into disrepair and in some cases the structure itself may be dismantled and even rebuilt to conform to new requirements. But I think we need to be careful of over ritualising the landscapes and activities concerned.

My town, Kirkwall, has, for example, been settled at least since the time of the Norse. The church of St Olaf, was built about 1035 between the Papdale Burn and the sea. Some have argued that there was a Christian community here before that, and archaeological investigation records activity going back, at least, to the Bronze Age. Today, we have a well-loved cathedral and Kirkwall is certainly a significant religious and political centre for the inhabitants of Orkney. Almost half of us choose to live here.

But I am not sure that we live here for the same reasons as the prehistoric inhabitants of the area. And, though the cathedral is important, I suspect that its presence was not the deciding factor for many of the present population. Kirkwall has many conveniences: local shops and supermarkets, restaurants, library, cinema, sports and leisure centre, hospital and so on. In other words, we, ourselves, have created the factors that make this a persistent place.

It is a difficult conundrum to puzzle out the origin of the elements that make somewhere special. And of course, they are likely to change over time, just as lives have changed over time. I find it pretty amazing to consider that I look out over the same bay that has been appreciated by the population of Kirkwall for around 1000 years and, of course, the basic requirements that are met by the area have, in some ways, stayed the same: food; transport; relaxation; companionship; and spiritual life. But this is due as much to the work of the generations who have lived here down the centuries as it is to any intrinsic qualities of the area.

Yes, of course, there are sacred sites that remain sacred. There are sacred sites that remain significant, if changed in use (Stonehenge). There are significant sites that remain popular. But, in most places, it is the combination of people and nature that serves to produce the persistent place. Not simply the location.

It is a good example of the deep entanglement between people and nature.

 

 

 

Virtual Worlds

Official Screenshot for Far Cry Primal showing the main character in the landscape
Official Screenshot for Far Cry Primal showing the main character in the landscape setting.

My guilty secret is that I’ve been playing on my son’s Playstation Four. Those in the know will guess that the motivation for this is the release of Far Cry Primal. Far Cry Primal is, to quote the blurb an ‘open-world sandbox set in the Stone Age era’. It is a video game where the violence relates to three competing ‘stone age’ tribes and their environment. It is fascinating. Continue reading Virtual Worlds

Timedepth in the Landscape

Midhowe area, Rousay
This shot of the island of Rousay encompasses remains from the Neolithic onwards, but where are the hunter-gatherer sites?

In the past (less so today), I was often approached by anxious parents, wondering about their child’s choice of archaeology as a subject for university study. One of my points was that, whatever your ultimate career, a degree in archaeology would enrich you for life. Not only were there all the usual platitudes about learning, thinking and research; more important was the point that, once you had studied archaeology, a walk in the countryside would never be the same again. And walking in the countryside is popular for many reasons.

It never ceases to amaze me how much there is to see in a piece of land once you have got your eye in. This point was admirably made by Dan Lee of the Archaeology Institute at UHI in Orkney recently when he led a group of us round the cleared community of Quandale on Rousay which he has been studying for a while now. There was just so much to see in the landscape: ruined steadings; burnt mounds; field dykes; barrows; tombs. The remains spanned at least four thousand years and spoke of the human condition: survival; success; tragedy; expansion; eviction; farming; life and death. Over the years, archaeology has made my countryside exploration so much more meaningful.

But there is a problem with this. When we focus on the remains that we can see, we recognise the traces of many, many past generations, but equally, we ignore the traces of many others. Prior to the mid fourth millennium BC most communities left no upstanding footprint to mark their passing. And Scotland has been inhabited since at least the tenth millennium, probably before.

The hunter-gatherers who inhabited the land before the advent of farming were just as significant as those who came after. But their traces are harder to find. They may be buried under peat, or subsumed below more recent remains. They are rarely obvious on the surface. For a discussion of this, have a read of the fieldwork section of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Report in ScARF. All too often we ignore the problem of finding these early sites, but by doing so we are in danger of losing an important part of our past.

Even where we do locate early material, it can be hard to deal with it effectively. We have a good management system for archaeology in Scotland based upon the work of two groups: Historic Environment Scotland (recently cut free from the Scottish Government, but still obliged to undertake statutory work); and Local Authority Archaeologists (whose knowledge of a region or country is rarely beaten). Yet this system is designed to look after upstanding, built features. Houses, tombs, roadways, earthworks: if people have made them we can protect and record them. But the hunters who lived here thousands of years ago rarely left upstanding monuments. They had a more subtle approach to altering the earth. Their mark is left in hearths, postholes, and flints. Especially flints, lots of flints.

When we find flints (or any other lithic tools), it can be harder to know what to do with them.  Statutory protection such as scheduling, is more difficult to enforce for a lithic scatter. At the time of writing it has never been done. It would be nice to see this situation remedied as a starter action by the new heritage body Historic Environment Scotland; it would enable it to make a significant mark on the legacy of good heritage protection and management that it has inherited from its predecessors. It would show that it is set to move things forward.

For the rest of us, we need to broaden the scope of our eye when we are out in the landscape. As long as we mentally prioritize the remains that lie above the ground we are missing the full extent of the richness and depth that lies around us. It is possible to develop a ‘Mesolithic eye’ and see the landscape through a reverse filter that restores an ancient topography. I’d love this to become as natural as the desire to see the remains of Medieval settlement or Neolithic ceremony.