Palaeolithic explorers in Orkney

tanged point from Brodgar
The tanged point from Brodgar – one of three exciting finds that have pushed back our understanding of the early settlement of Orkney

I put together a wee lecture for Radio Orkney last night on the findings of Late Upper Palaeolithic tanged points in Orkney and how they push our understanding of the earliest human exploration of Orkney back to some 13,000 years ago. It lasts for about half an hour. You can listen to it here. Please note that the image Radio Orkney has used to illustrate it is of a handaxe that was found on the beach some years ago and is not actually appropriate to the lecture (it is not likely to be an in situ find, and would be many millennia earlier if it was). I did put together a few images to go with the lecture, they have not been posted with the lecture, but if you would like to get them then just email me and I will let you have a copy – they might relieve the tedium of listening to me droning on for half an hour!

Archaeology and the media

popular archaeology
It is worth getting popular archaeology right: the wonderful Brian Wilkinson enthusing people about the Mesolithic life style.

I’ve always been keen to promote archaeology to a wide audience. As such one can only be happy to see archaeological material being presented in a variety of popular media such as television, books and radio.

How sad, therefore, to hear a popular account of archaeology on Start the Week on Radio Four this week that was very misleading. My problems relate to the description of Britain in 9700 BC and thereabouts: Northern Britain under glaciers; tundra to the south and a landscape devoid of human settlement; Doggerland as a landbridge; the characterisation of the Scottish coast by raised beaches; and, of course, the tsunami that cut us off from the continent. Apart from the tsunami, it all sounded very drab. Of course, it pressed all my buttons for it is a period about which I feel passionately.

Most of my complaints relate to language and I know that makes me pedantic. But we are talking radio here, if language is not important then what is. To say that northern Britain was under glaciers in 9700 BC may be technically correct (though they were diminishing) but these were the re-advancing ice coverage of the Younger Dryas (sometimes known in Scotland as the Loch Lomond Stadial) and are more commonly referred to as ‘small ice caps’, rather than the full blown glacial cover. Similarly, to talk about the coastline of Scotland as characterised by post-glacial raised beaches is a gross over-simplification that owes more to the school books of my childhood than to current research. There are places, like Orkney, where the post-glacial coastline is characterised by the submergence of landscape.

To hear Doggerland described as an isthmus, a landbridge, or a plain always upsets me. The area of Doggerland in the Early Holocene is still based on fairly general models, but even these suggest that it was a considerable landmass. It is likely to have been bigger than several of the smaller European countries today, including England. I don’t think that is an isthmus. Low-lying plains?  I do accept that on a chat show one does not have time to explore the nuances of current archaeological research. But the work on Doggerland is hardly new and shows clearly that it comprised rather more than the undulating landscape I caught in my mind’s eye as I listened. There are many people working on Doggerland and they include artists interested in ‘re-naming’ it as well as geoscientists interested in ‘re-wilding’ it. No one, perhaps, has done more than Vince Gaffney and his team to highlight the glories of Doggerland and its topography: lakes; hills; rivers; marshes, it is all there and now they are working to elucidate the animals and vegetation. Maybe it is just me, but I don’t see Doggerland as a landbridge, I see it as a country. For me Doggerland is exciting, full of promise, and a glimpse to a past where Britain takes its rightful place as a part of Europe.

Britain abandoned: the human occupation of Britain has a long and venerable history going back almost a million years and, yes, there are times when it is thought that people may have been absent. But not in recent times, and for me that includes anything from fifteen thousand years ago. Sites may be few and far between, but they are there. The last ‘Upper Palaeolithic’ hunters based their stone tool assemblages on long blades, and we are beginning to recognise related industries from sites across Britain from north-west Scotland and Orkney to, of course, the south. Scientific dates are still sometimes elusive but, where they are lacking, fairly accurate parallels may be drawn on the basis of dated sites elsewhere and these show good evidence for long-blade based activity in England by 11,500 BC and in Scotland around 11,000 BC. By 9000 BC things are really taking off: there is, for example, evidence of the sophisticated use of the landscape of the Vale of Pickering in Yorkshire with people at sites like Star Carr building houses and platforms and making use of those wonderful deer masks in hunting and other rituals. For me this is an exciting time: small groups are making their way in a rich landscape. Their culture is rich with meaning and possibility, building on a venerable ancestry to make the most of the world they encounter.

The power of the tsunami. Yes, of course, the Storegga Slide and associated tsunami were powerful events, transforming and treacherous for those who got in their path. But, the modelling that suggested (a while ago now) that the tsunami had washed away the last vestiges of Doggerland, was very generalised and simply showed that low lying coastal land would have been vulnerable. It is hardly rocket science. In reality, Doggerland had been diminishing for millennia before that. The tsunami provides a convenient shorthand for the loss of Doggerland, but I suspect that its real power lies among modern archaeologists rather than the people of the past. The population of Doggerland had a high degree of mobility, many were seafarers, all understood the landscape and held the inherent flexibility they needed to survive. They lived in a changing world; for them, change was the norm and they knew how to survive. The tsunami was a disaster, but Doggerland was already disappearing and would have been lost with or without the Storegga Slide. For me the tsunami is a distraction: I try to avoid it in lectures, but, usually, the first question will be along the lines of: ‘you didn’t mention the tsunami, but…’. Arghhh.

The final point to be made was that the geography of Britain, and the geographical processes to which the land is subject, make it inevitable that the south, specifically the south-east, should be the centre of things. It would be easy to think this, if the archaeology did not suggest otherwise. There is no evidence for any geographical ‘preferencing’ prior to around 3500 BC, except to say that populations in the north seem to have had their own roots and these roots may not always have been the same as those of the populations in the south. By 3500 BC the economic basis of life across Britain has shifted to farming and, curiously, current evidence suggests that something happens in the north to springboard a series of developments in cultural and social life which spread, pretty quickly, southwards. So the north had it first. Some might see this influence as culminating in the construction of monuments like Avebury and Stonehenge. Only after this do we begin to see the increasing social power of the south and it is a long time before it extends fully to encompass the north. My own hunch is that this power shift is related, among other things, to the increasing importance of external contacts and the way in which the proximity (and ease of access) to the continent allowed society in the south to develop.

For me the programme was interesting. It clearly got me thinking, and it is good to hear archaeology ‘out there’, but the content was sadly old fashioned. I can’t be the only one to find the period fascinating. The number of research projects taking place and pushing knowledge forward suggests that I’m not. There is new stuff to read, and it is always worth reading it.

Maybe the guests were just having a bad morning on Radio Four on Monday, but I was sad to hear them painting such a depressing view of our ancestors and the world in which they lived. It is a shame when popular science is out of date. If we are going to do it, we need to do it properly. I do understand that I’m biased, but for me the landscape of Doggerland and the lives of the Late Glacial and Early Mesolithic communities of Britain are full of wonderful, colourful, promise.

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

Listening to the past

Bootleg Beatles
Sound is an essential element of the world in which we live. The sounds of our childhood are profoundly influential. The Bootleg Beatles at LunarFest 2015.

There is a real movement just now to make use of different ways in which to communicate archaeology and it is very exciting. This is not just through fiction writing, it encompasses a whole range of media including poetry (see the work of Laura Watts), art (eg: Aaron Watson) and sound (Ben Elliott and Jon Hughes).

One of the essential conundrums for those of us who work in the Mesolithic is that we are trying to communicate information about our Mesolithic forebears in a way which just did not exist in their world.  Even if they did have some form of written communication that we have yet to recognize, their world was largely an aural one.

After listening to Mark Edmonds talk about his work at Jodrell Bank the other day I was thinking just how much sound must have mattered to the Mesolithic community and wondering to what extent our sound-world differs from theirs. Obviously the content will be different. But what about the quality? How much were they aware of levels and tones that we no longer notice? It would be nice to think that we could start to consider this when trying to interpret sites. We tend to diminish the significance of the soundscape because our world has become so visual. But it was not so in the past. This is not a new idea. One project has been woven around the iconic site of Star Carr, where archaeologist Ben Elliott and sound artist Jon Hughes worked to explore the sounds of Mesolithic Britain.

It is important stuff because it helps to make our understanding of life in the past more complete.  We can never be sure precisely how people reacted to the aural world around them, but we can start to put together the suite of sounds that they would have encountered and by learning to investigate other senses beyond the visual we add depth to our explorations of the emotional reactions to the world in which people lived. These reactions went on to drive the physical world they created for themselves. And it is from this physical world that the remains of archaeology survive.

In this way we enrich our archaeological understanding. Phenomenology, while still mediated through the mind-set of the twenty-first century person, becomes truly multi-dimensional. Ironically, this step back towards the past has been made possible by modern developments in recording and listening technology as well as increasing awareness of the value of exploring a wider range of data.

And, of course, it is fun!

Differing Views

Brodgar and students
The Communication of archaeology – our ultimate aim!

I have a problem and I am not sure how to resolve it.

How do we ensure that the papers that we publish present the most up-to-date information and analysis?

Academic publication meets strict standards, one of which requires that papers, once submitted, are sent to referees (usually two) who read the paper, check that the research is up-to-date, comment on the significance, and note any omissions, errors or muddled writing. Most people will ask a colleague or two to read a paper before submission – it is better to find out about weaknesses at this point in my opinion.

I’ve acted as a referee myself on frequent occasions and I hope my comments are useful. When the journal allows it, I prefer my name to be known to the authors (though I may not know who they are), because it will allow them to understand my point of view, and if necessary check the precise meaning of my comments. I don’t really believe in saying things that I’d not discuss with someone face to face.

In general, I find that the comments of referees on my papers always result in stronger papers. They see things from a wider point of view than I do because they have not been bound up with a particular project for the previous months (or years); they highlight things that, while obvious to me, are not obvious to others; they point out areas where my writing is unclear; and they are great at suggesting references that I have overlooked. It might be annoying to have to unpick your writing once you think you have signed it off, but in the end it is  worthwhile.

But – I am sure you can hear a ‘but’ coming…

But, just once in a while it all goes wrong and that shakes my faith in the system. I had a paper a while ago that was refereed by three people (I’m not sure why that was, it is the first time I’ve come across it, but perhaps that is the new standard). Curiously, each identified totally different weaknesses in the paper. The optimistic side of me would see that as a validation that my point of view, while not everyone’s, did not contain any total howlers. Unfortunately, that is not how journal editors work: they tend to be more negative so that in this case it merely tripled the weaknesses.

You can see their point: except that in many instances these particular referees disagreed with each other. One thought that the stone tools might be particularly early, another was disappointed that I had not explored the possibility that they represented a survival of that technology into late prehistory. In actual fact there is no evidence in Scotland for the early or late instance of this technique at all, though I suppose if we were hidebound we would never discover anything new. One was concerned that I had not undertaken a Bayesian analysis of the (poorly contexted) radiocarbon dates; this raised the vision of Patrick Ashmore who taught me so much about the unreliability of dates based on uncertain contexts, something that I’m not sure even the most sophisticated of Bayesian work can remedy. I could go on, but I think you get my point.

Of course, it is possible to argue your case with an editor, but in my experience this is rarely successful; editors tend to assign academic precedence to referees rather than authors, even when it is the latter who have been studying a particular subject or site. And, I always have that niggling feeling – ‘what if they are right’. Having my work questioned makes me doubt myself. I know I should be more resilient, but my inclination is to go through the comments and try to cover each one in text. This might lead to some strange discussion of issues that most people would not regard as relevant, but it does make everything blindingly obvious. Sometimes the level of detail is such that one is left with the lurking feeling that you should have added the referees as co-authors.

Being a referee is a big commitment. For every journal there is an army of unpaid referees, reading, thinking and commenting. We have to thank them. But it is not a perfect system. Occasionally there are scores to be paid; or simply the desire to let off steam after you have had to deal with some picky referee yourself; sometimes arms are twisted to referee something where you really don’t have the expertise. Usually, these things show up and, of course, that is the reason that the double referee system has been developed. But as long as editors bow to the referee’s opinion without any thought, then the system is flawed.

I’m not sure how to improve it. We need to ensure academic excellence. But I’m coming across more and more examples of refereeing that is somehow not quite working. I’m hoping that with more open dialogue we might be able to return to the system where the referees work to ensure the significance and quality of publications, without rewriting them on behalf of the authors.