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.


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.

Boundaries and Horizons

Swona lies between Orkney and the Scottish Mainland, in the Pentland Firth, but is the sea a barrier or a link. Once there was a thriving population here – in recent times it has proved too difficult to maintain modern living standards in places like this.

I ventured over to Caithness last night. The short sea crossing made me think about horizons and boundaries: real and perceived. Can we really separate them?

I was less than 50 miles away from home, but it seemed like another world. I wonder how it was perceived by the Mesolithic communities who made Orkney their home? People ask me whether the inhabitants of Mesolithic Orkney lived here year round. Of course, the short answer is that we don’t know – but that is not very satisfactory; perhaps it is more useful to explore the possibilities.

The first problem is that the Mesolithic lasted for a very, very long time – around 5000 years – and so it is likely that practices changed throughout that period. The second problem is that we don’t know how many people lived here – indeed the population of Orkney is likely to have fluctuated depending on climate, resources, disease, and whim. The third problem is that the Mesolithic community is likely to have been fluid – ‘families’ may not have stuck together all the time, groups may have split from time to time only to come together again after a month, a season, a year, or several years.

I think it is likely that there were resources in Orkney on a year round basis. Fresh water, firewood and driftwood for fuel, food (fish, meat, shellfish, eggs, nuts, seeds, roots and berries) – those who knew how to harvest the land carefully would find what they needed. However, hunter-gatherers do need to move around a territory in order to maintain supplies for future years and, while Orkney provides a nice compact unit, it would not support many people for very long if there were no management of the natural resources.

It is not just a question of management though; it is also a question of perception and understanding. In many ways our home-ranges have diminished as transport has got better. I think twice about crossing Orkney from Kirkwall to go to the cinema club in Stromness and it was just the same when I lived in Edinburgh – we choose school, shops and services within easy reach of where we live. All our basic needs can be fulfilled close to home. Mesolithic communities had a home territory that covered a wider area and they were familiar with all parts of it. They had to be in order to survive. If resources failed in one place, they had to be able to navigate to another and know how to obtain what they needed, even after an absence of several years. So, the Mesolithic home territory had to be large enough to provide for all eventualities, with some flexibility thrown in, to allow for fluctuations in weather and population.

I think it likely that those lived in Orkney also considered the moors and hills of Caithness as familiar, home, ground. It seems very different to us, and the boat-ride emphasises that feeling of dislocation. The way in which we travel today is always somehow sterile – whether by car, ferry or plane, we are often alone and disconnected. Travellers in the past tended to move with, and among, their own people. And, while Caithness is, indeed, very different to Orkney it complements it perfectly. Orkney and Caithness together make a formidable territory. So, I’m not surprised that we are finding increasing evidence for Mesolithic settlement on both sides of the Pentland Firth.

It wasn’t ever an easy crossing, but for those who saw themselves as part of the natural world and treated it with respect, it wasn’t a great obstacle. The boundary today is mental, more than physical and it is somehow strange that communities so near, can, yet, seem so far away. We manage our world so differently to our predecessors eight thousand years ago, but it is not always true to say that our horizons have increased.

Thoughts about sea crossings

Prehistoric Lakedwellers with a boat
‘Lakedwellers’ from an anonymous illustration in 1937

I’m interested in the relationship between people and the sea. Perhaps it is something to do with living on an island and looking out at the sea every day. And with my research interests in hunter-gatherers and their mobility.

Visiting a local exhibition by Patty and Ralph Robinson on ‘Allegories of Migration’ in aid of the Scottish Refugee Council, I was very struck by some of the pieces and the thoughts they inspired. What role, for example, will the current sea-crossings in the eastern Mediterranean play in the stories that are told hereafter? Although we often see the sea as a boundary (we are an island nation after all), in many of our stories journeys across the sea act as gateways to adventure. Of course the classic tale is the Odyssey, but the theme holds good closer to home as well. From the the account of Rognvald’s journey to the Holy Land in the Orkneyinga Saga to Treasure Island, there is something about setting out by boat that we know in advance will serve to test our abilities with the possibility of great reward at the end.

But reading these stories at home is a very safe pastime.  We rarely think of them as threatening. Perhaps we should. I listened fascinated (and horrified) to an interview on Radio Four the other day as a Syrian refugee family spoke calmly of the boat crossing they were about to make, of the fact that the boat would be sunk before they reached land, and of the fact that most of them could not swim. The dangers are huge. And yet the reward is so great, and their present situation so bad that the chances of being rescued make the journey worthwhile.

I wonder about the sea stories told by our Mesolithic ancestors. And whether the crossing of water has always been so laden. I suppose it probably has, from the moment we left Africa. It is very easy to be lulled into a false sense of security today, when one has a warm fire, a mug of tea and a good book. Even more so when our sea crossings are done in the comparative comfort of a modern ferry. Few of us in the UK set out across water in the knowledge that we might not return, or make it to the other side. Perhaps we should look differently at our tales of the sea and the way in which we write about past sea crossings, and we should remember that it has not always been so.