Crossing the North Sea

Recently, I crossed the high seas for the coast of Norway. I was quite excited because I would be duplicating the sea crossing that was so important to the Norse inhabitants of Orkney. I’ve flown to Bergen many times and it is a city that I love. But air travel makes me a child of my times.

We forget how much our perception of the world is influenced by our mode of transport. The ease of flight is a good example. Distances are shortened, risk is reduced, comfort is increased.  But we also need to take into account the way in which planes allow us to see the world from above. That is not how the world was experienced in the past. Though some, with good imaginations, no doubt thought themselves into the perspective of birds, most travellers watched ahead for the signs that land was approaching – coastal species of birds, particular cloud formations, the patterning of currents and waves in the water. They could then take stock as distant shapes on the horizon grew to become mountains, hills, and forests. The envisioning of land was shaped by the way in which it appeared on the horizon in front of you and, of course, the watercraft of the past sat considerably lower in the water than those of today.

Ok, I know that I’m not going to be there at the prow, seeking the changes that indicate land ahead. And I know that I’m on a much bigger ship than any that our ancestors could possibly have imagined. I knew I’d be travelling in comfort compared to them. But it still seems a wonderful thing: to cross those same waters afloat.

The payoff is that I have to give a lecture or two. That is not a big problem – those who know me know that I love talking and getting into conversation about some of my favourite subjects. So I’ve been researching some of the people and the journeys that took place across these waters a thousand years ago. My main source is the Orkneyinga Saga, that wonderful account, drawn together from the stories that were told about the inhabitants of the northern world around Orkney a thousand years ago. While some of the Saga is a fairly dry recitation of ‘fact’ – who did what to who and why and when, most of it is much more colourful and quite often it is presented in words that purport to be the characters’ own. We are told of lives and loves, we learn of teenage boys and their liking for bars and chic clothing, we learn of resourceful women, we learn of boastful men, and we learn of the arrogance and jealousies that fuelled the powerful families of the day. Perhaps it was not so different to the present.

One of my favourite characters is Rognvald, Earl of Orkney. Though he grew up in Norway and earned a reputation as something of a teenage rebel, he ended up as a much loved and respected Earl of Orkney. He founded our cathedral, a building that still commands respect and awe. He was well educated and his poetry provides an intimate glimpse of his life and his changing concerns as he grew to maturity.  He was well travelled (reaching Jerusalem) and he experienced many cultures – a reminder that the wider view is not exclusive to the present day.

Another individual who I always think of is Margaret daughter of Eric, King of Norway; she came to be known as the Maid of Norway. Though she lived in the decades after the events of the Saga were recorded and written down, her story is still vivid and it tugs at my heart strings. Margaret was born in Bergen in 1283; sadly, her mother, a Scottish princess, died in childbirth. Her grandfather, King Alexander III of Scotland died in 1286, making her queen of Scotland, and after prolonged negotiations she was betrothed to Edward, son of Edward I of England. In 1290 the seven-year-old princess set sail across the North Sea to Scotland from whence she would travel onwards to meet her future husband. The little girl did not live to see her mother’s country as the weather deteriorated and she died, probably as a result of sea-sickness somewhere short of Orkney. Her body was returned to Bergen, where it is still possible to visit her grave – a pilgrimage I always make when I am there.

Orkney andscape across the lochs

The landscape of Orkney was quite different to that experienced by those living and farming around the fjords of Hordaland and Bergen.

Well, that is a cheery tale for those contemplating a crossing of the same stretch of water. But there were, of course, many thousands of Norsemen and women who made the same crossing with no ill effects. I’ve arrived in Orkney by sea often enough, and on a variety of craft, but arriving into Bergen and the fjords to the north by sea is something different for me. Like my Norse predecessors I’m on the lookout for good tales to tell those who have kindly remained in Orkney to look after my home and belongings. Like the Norse it will, I hope, expand my views of the world.

The world of Doggerland

High Seas Orkney
The sea can unite as well as divide… It can obscure and reveal. It conditions the way we look at things. What lies out there – beyond our coasts?

I’m watching events relating to Britain’s position in Europe with a kind of horrible fascination. Chronologically, my work concerns the period when the land that would become the UK was merely a mountainous, largely ice-girt, peninsula on the north west of the continent that we call ‘Europe’. I realise that this has biased my point of view. Continue reading The world of Doggerland

North is the new East

Scotland as seen from the north.
We do not always have to put the north to the top of the map as our reference point. Sometimes it is worth altering our point of view.

When I studied archaeology many moons ago we were taught (to paraphrase), very much along the lines that civilization had come out of the east. It was a time of diffusionist ideas and thus it naturally flowed that new developments would appear first somewhere around the Straits of Dover and gradually work their way north. Text books, like Lacaille’s excellent ‘The Stone Age in Scotland’, followed this model, fitting the available evidence into a paradigm whereby early-looking stone tools in the north of Scotland were interpreted as representing archaic Mesolithic survivals, still in use in a backward northern society, centuries after people further south had taken advantage of more recent developments.

I can’t remember when I first became aware of the idea of perceptual geography, but I do remember being very taken with a map of the North Sea which I first saw in Bergen in the mid 1980s. I still have a copy on my wall. It looked west, from Bergen across to Scotland, and I suddenly realised that the world could operate very differently for those who do not need tarmac roads and governmental regulation from Westminster (or Edinburgh). It was an idea that I have tried to develop ever since. Thus, when people asked why a remote site like Rum was settled so early on, I could discuss the needs of the Mesolithic population and point out that, for a mobile, sea-going people, islands like Rum are in similar locations to the motorway service stations of England. Equally, if you skew the map of the North Sea, then the central position of Orkney in the maritime empire of the Norsemen becomes obvious.

As my research continued, it became clear that the earliest settlement of Scotland after the Ice Age was not a simple matter of people making their way slowly north as conditions improved. Rather, it looked as if there may have been several ‘homelands’ including perhaps somewhere in the vicinity of southern Scandinavia where the stone tools shared certain characteristics with those of northern Scotland.  Today, we might recognise this as affirmation of the migration of groups along the northern coastlands of Doggerland.

In recent years this has been followed by discussion of the primacy of societal and cultural developments in Neolithic Britain and the suggestion that elements such as Grooved Ware may have been part of a migration of ideas from north to south (an argument eloquently set out by Julian Thomas in his 2010 paper: The Return of the Rinyo Clacton Folk). Following this line of reasoning, iconic monuments such as Stonehenge become the culmination of seeds that first sprouted in the fertile fields of Neolithic Orkney and around monuments such as the Stones of Stenness.

I’m sure there are other examples in the intervening millennia but if we fast forward to today, it is interesting to note the extent to which things ‘northern’ have now become popular. We have Nordic food and design, Scandi-noir in publishing and on television, new histories of northern exploration, and a host of books exploring our attitude to the north. For the first time for ages, living in the north is no longer the symbol of the recluse but rather it is the trendy thing to do. At the same time our politics is fragmenting. Northern communities demand a voice and the developing primacy for everyday society of internet technology over the internal combustion engine is allowing them to develop it.

We no longer need to be able to reach London in a day. Those of us who live in the north, are happy in the north, and those who don’t, seem, increasingly, to wish they did. But then, as archaeologists, we knew this all along.