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.

Talking about uncomfortable things

orkney sunrise
The past might be nasty, brutish and short, but let’s try to keep a rosy view in our dealings with one another.

I feel very uncomfortable about accusations of the political use of archaeology. My overwhelming instinct is to stick my head in the sand and avoid discussing or confronting them. I don’t want to stir things up and I don’t want to upset or offend people. But, I’m going to consider it just now because I feel that these are weird times in which we live, and sometimes we must address uncomfortable matters.

Archaeology is inherently political, if nothing else because we are trying to investigate past human communities and people are always, in one way or another, political. But it is one thing to recognise political content and quite another to use that content to make political statements that relate to different (usually modern) times. I don’t like it when people try to bend archaeological interpretation and use it as a window on to present politics. It has been done, and it usually ends in tears.

There has been some discussion in the press and social media about the possible use of the Secrets of Orkney television series to promote a unionist agenda of British politics (see Kenny Brophy’s article as a good starting point). I’m worried by this. Having commented on the representation of Neolithic Britain as a period wherein the expression of some elements of life were shared as material culture across these islands, it has been said that it would have been more representative to celebrate the diversity of Neolithic Britain and the uniqueness of Neolithic Orkney. I wonder if that could be construed as serving the opposite agenda? And are not both views valid?

Surely, as archaeologists we have a duty to present the past in whatever way we each, individually, see it – with the caveat that we need to try to stop our views of the world today from intruding too deeply on our ideas of the world of the past. I realise, of course, that we are all coloured by our beliefs, whether they relate to religion, the current political situation, acceptable foods, the role of music, whatever. But if we allow for a plurality of interpretation then, hopefully, the end result will be ideas that are more balanced across a range of possibilities. We can perhaps even encourage people to critique the archaeological narrative for themselves. It might not be possible to produce an alternative television series for every viewpoint, but it is, surely, possible to make use of other media: books; blogs; newspaper and magazines. It doesn’t do any harm to show the processes of academic debate, and we don’t have to be rude, or confrontational, while we are doing so (let’s save that for in-house conferences and the pub).

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I’ve touched on it before, but I don’t believe that there is any correct answer regarding the interpretation of the material that we excavate. As professional archaeologists, we learn to work within academic boundaries, but I can’t tell you what happened in the Mesolithic any more than I can explain the extinction of the dinosaurs. And, as you know, I don’t believe that my word is any more valid than that of the carefully researched artist, TV company, or cartoonist. Does this make me a ‘post-truth’ archaeologist? I fear that it might; though, I’d argue that the application of professionally acceptable boundaries to my thoughts lifts them well above some of the reinterpretations of history that we have seen. It is a slightly different application of the phrase. I’m post-truth in the sense that, while I believe that the facts/data in archaeology are immutable, I also believe that there are different ways to interpret them.

Returning to the Neolithic of Orkney and Britain. The gaps in the evidence are such that it is possible to build narratives that address many different views. I was involved in an advisory capacity with the production of the Secrets series, and so I am, of course, biased. I understood it to be focussed primarily on the Neolithic of Orkney, but, given the lack of popular information relating to the Neolithic, I thought I could understand the need to use Stonehenge as an anchor. The idea that the development of material culture in Orkney pre-dates that further south is hardly new – it has been well covered from the National Geographic Magazine to academic papers. Whether I like it or not, most of the television audience will be more familiar with Stonehenge than Skara Brae. I thought the challenge to contemporary ideas of remoteness worked quite well to get people thinking about a time when the social geography of Britain was not as we know it. For those reasons, the focus on Orkney and Stonehenge did not worry me.

It would, of course, be nice to produce a series that covered the details of Neolithic life in all their glory and diversity, right around the UK. It would be a lengthy series, and it would be expensive, but if someone would like to commission it then do get in touch. We could have fun putting it together. We could, perhaps, ask teams from different places to curate the scene from their locales, so that we are also looking at some of the different viewpoints that affect our ideas of the past. Would we hold our audience? I don’t know and that is why I suspect that us academics are better to leave specialist subjects such as television to the professionals. Nevertheless, we do have a duty to push for increasing public access to our musings, and so I look forward to the material that will, no doubt, be spawned by reaction to the Orkney programmes.

I know that I would be naive not to recognise that archaeology will, on occasion, be used as the handmaiden of politics. There is so much scope that I’m amazed that it does not happen more often. As archaeologists, we are keen to illustrate the ways in which our profession can be of use to the present. But, I’d feel more comfortable if it were possible to be less confrontational. If there is one lesson I’d promote (thereby negating the whole of my argument above), it is that there is, in these north-western islands off the coast of Europe, plenty of room for diversities of view.

The Landscape of the Ness of Brodgar

Landscape of Orkney
The landscape at the heart of Neolithic Orkney. This was a    dynamic place for those who chose to site their monuments here.

New Paper out on the development of the landscape around Ness of Brodgar.

Wickham-Jones, C.R., Bates, M., Bates, R., Dawson, S. and Kavanagh, E. 2016 People and Landscape at the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. Archaeological Review from Cambridge, 31 (2), 26-47.

Together with my colleagues, I’ve been working on a paper to discuss the results of our work on landscape change around the Ness of Brodgar, particularly relating to the Loch of Stenness. We published the tekky detail this time last year, and we were keen to explore what it might mean with relation to the Neolithic communities of the area and the siting of the monuments that make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. You really have to read the paper to get the full detail, but in essence our landscape reconstructions document the penetration of marine conditions into the dry land world of the Neolithic farmers at the heart of the islands. Given the emerging evidence for the ‘slighting of the sea’ in the Early Neolithic, it is fascinating that this fragile spot became so important to the island community.

It is possible to order a copy of the Landscape issue of Archaeological Review from Cambridge here. But I can let people have a pdf of our paper for individual research interests – just email me (my email address is on the home page).

Secrets of Orkney – Reminder

Scapa Beach
Scapa Beach at New Year.

Just a quick reminder to those of you with access to the BBC to set your recorders to view Secrets of Orkney on BBC Two this evening (Monday 2nd January 2017) at 9pm.

The filming is wonderful and the story that it unfolds will get you thinking. For more about my involvement with the series see my entry in the Oxbow Books Blog here.

Let me know your opinions, and questions after the episodes. You can get my email address from the home page of my website.

Thoughts on Ness of Brodgar

My favourite spot at Ness of Brodgar, the paving outside structures one and eleven and the passage way running between the two.
My favourite spot at Ness of Brodgar, the paving outside structures one and eleven and the passageway running between the two.

I’m often asked about the site at Ness of Brodgar. It is an amazing place, and a fascinating excavation to visit. But I have to say that I am quite glad not to be a part of the project team. Ness is clearly very, very complex and exploring the history of a site like that is not an easy task. I can remember visiting Lionel Masters when he was excavating the long cairn at Grey Cairns of Camster in Caithness and feeling quite overwhelmed by all the stone work there. I have the same feeling at Ness of Brodgar. I don’t envy Nick Card and his colleagues the work that lies ahead as they follow and unravel the threads of human activity that have gone to make up the site.

It is a rare and exciting opportunity, however, to see a side of Neolithic life that we have only just begun to explore in Scotland: we have some detail of the houses and communities in which people lived; we have information on the great chambered tombs they built to house at least some of their dead and where we think people may have gathered as part of the cementing of local identities; we even have the great stone circles and henge sites where a wider expression of society is likely to have taken place. Ness shows us that there was more to life than that. Whatever it was, and we have yet to see the interpretations founded on painstaking analysis that will no doubt arise in years to come, it was clearly an important part of life in Neolithic Orkney. Continue reading Thoughts on Ness of Brodgar