Circling the Square: part two

This image of Maeshowe published by James Farrer in 1862 shows, very clearly, the encircling henge, which tends to be forgotten in many accounts of the tomb. Incidentally, it also shows the appearance of the mound before the reconstruction of the roof by the Ministry of Works in the early twentieth century.

Recently, a team of specialists drawn from the Universities of Leicester and Southampton announced the find of a new structure within the south circle at Avebury. It is an exciting find that reminds us that these ancient and well-loved places still preserve their secrets. I found it particularly interesting because of the way in which the new formation, said to be composed of megaliths that were removed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, comprises a square that is set within the heart of the surviving stone circle.

The team are, apparently, surprised to find a square megalithic setting, I can’t comment on that as my knowledge of megaliths around the UK is not, sadly, comprehensive, though I would point them to a paper published by Tim Darvill in the spring of 2016 which celebrates just this design at Stonehenge. I would also suggest that, were they to look north, they might find that the use of a square design, and indeed the overall design of a rectangle set within a circle is far from unusual. In fact, in Orkney, monuments comprising a square setting within a circle were all the rage among the special places of the late Neolithic. Perhaps the best known is Structure Eight at Barnhouse, where one is able to enter the reconstruction and experience for oneself how this type of architecture may have functioned. Another, well known example, is Structure Ten at Ness of Brodgar, only partly excavated but of similar design – contrast the angularity of the interior with the rounded nature of the exterior.

This internal angularity with external rounding is also seen in the house structure at Skara Brae, perhaps it is just how one did things in the Neolithic? But there is another site that suggests it may have a deeper meaning. Maeshowe is known for the circular platform on which it sits – yet the tomb interior is beautifully angular. Curiously, several archaeologists have suggested that there may have been a free standing rectangular stone setting on the platform at Maeshowe prior to the building of the tomb. And, of course, many of the stone-built chambered tombs of the north comprise rectangular chambers set within a rounded mound.

My guess is that were we to have a similarly detailed record of late Neolithic architecture right across the UK, we would find other uses of the square within the circle. Hopefully, the application of refined geophysics to sites away from the research heartlands of Wiltshire and Orkney will start to find them. What it actually meant is anyone’s guess, though I have noted before that it is still a powerful symbol (with many meanings) today. The new find at Avebury is indeed significant, but I’d caution against celebrating it as unique – to my mind it is more interesting if it starts to flesh out the nascent patterning of monumental settings that we are beginning to recognise across Neolithic Britain.

Neolithic Isolation

Farm at Gallow Hill
The Farmstead at Gallow Hill in Shetland. This panorama gives an idea of the remarkable preservation of the site which sits on the surface at present ground level. The main house structure lies at the centre (with modern disturbance), while the remains of clearance cairns and field walls may be seen all around it. The complex also includes substantial outlying burial monuments.

I seem to be travelling a lot just now and it makes me think about the ease of mobility today and the way in which it transcends not just distance but also culture. We are all accustomed to the presence of items in our homes, often everyday items, which reflect a way of life very different to our own.

One of my journeys led me north to the island chain of Shetland. It is a great place with amazing archaeology and I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to spend three days there, discussing the archaeology with colleagues, and visiting some of the lesser known (but as it turned out no less spectacular), sites. Much of our discussion focussed on the introduction of farming to Shetland and development of the Neolithic there. The interesting element about this for me is that, although farming was certainly introduced by boat, there is little evidence that people, once settled there, kept up frequent contacts with communities further south. Repeated evidence for contact between Shetland and places such as Orkney does not appear until later in the Neolithic.

Alison Sheridan’s recent research suggests that, on the grounds of tomb types, the early farming communities may have come from the west coast of Scotland. We do not know for certain whether or not there were pre-existing Mesolithic communities here, but tantalizing hints of the use of coastal resources at an early date come from the site of West Voe in the south of the islands, where a team from Bradford has excavated a site dating to 3700 – 3600 BC. The finds from West Voe included both cattle and sheep bones and seem to indicate a community with both Mesolithic and Neolithic traits. This is, of itself, particularly exciting because, as I have argued before, it is particularly difficult for archaeologists to recognise the ‘blurred’ episodes that lay between our carefully defined periods. West Voe, it seems, is exactly this. Was this one of the first farming communities to settle in Shetland, or do the remains relate to a Mesolithic (or Neolithic) community that chose to adopt the ‘useful bits’ from their new neighbours? At the moment, we just don’t know.

Farming soon spread across Shetland and it is likely that agricultural land may have been more plentiful than today. Shetland, like Orkney, has been subject to rising relative sea-levels since the end of the last Ice Age meaning that coastal lands have been lost. We don’t yet have precise measurements for this but it is possible that relative sea-level was as much as 10m lower around 4000 BC which would mean that the topography of the islands was very different to that of today. As yet, there are few sites that date to this earliest farming period: perhaps a reflection of the loss of coastal settlements to inundation; or of our inability to recognise the earliest sites, particularly if they reflected the hybridity of West Voe; or maybe just confirmation that population levels at this time were, indeed, low.

The interesting thing is that the resources that we find on the Neolithic sites were all very local. And, despite the production in Shetland of stunning and apparently high status objects such as beautiful polished axes and knives of local felsite, we don’t get much evidence of Shetland-style products leaving the islands. Even in Orkney, where the islanders were, apparently, seriously into the production and acquisition of elaborate showy goods like Grooved Ware pottery, only two, possible, artifacts of Shetland felsite have been found. There is no evidence either that pottery such as Grooved Ware, or even architecture such as that of the Stone Circles, or the buildings at Ness of Brodgar and Barnhouse came north to Shetland. And, while research on the Orkney Vole and its possible Neolithic origins on the Continent may still be be controversial, there is no evidence for the spread of Orkney Voles into Shetland.

So, the available evidence suggests that the Neolithic islanders of Shetland did not look south for cultural connections. And the Neolithic islanders of Orkney seem to have been too preoccupied with their own southern networking to explore the possibility that there was benefit to be obtained from looking north. Only later, as economic and cultural horizons in the south of Britain shifted to the Continent and Ireland with the introduction of metal, did Orcadian communities apparently become aware of the availability of raw materials to the north.

I find this seeming isolation of Neolithic Shetland fascinating. Just how many groups of incomers made the lengthy journey north? How many people were needed to settle the islands? You’d not need that many breeding cattle and sheep, though the voyage cannot have been an easy one. Are the difficulties of the voyage reflected in the fact that there is so little evidence for return trips? Does the development of connections between the island groups of Orkney and Shetland in the later third millennium BC (when, for example, we see the export of steatite vessels from Shetland to Orkney) reflect improvements in sea-going craft as well as the possible decline of Orcadian connections further south?

Nevertheless, isolation did not equate with lack of success. The population of Neolithic Shetland may not have been large for the first few centuries, but communities survived. Work by Janet Montgomery of Durham University and her colleagues, suggests that there were, indeed, times of famine, but houses and elaborate tombs were built, and communities developed. With time, Shetland would become more a part of mainstream Britain. For now, it seems to me that the earliest farmers in Shetland may have adapted to their northern homeland by broadening their resource base and leaving an archaeological record that is both less clearly ‘Neolithic’ and, most likely, largely underwater.


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).