Conversations with Magic Stones

Conversations with Magic Stones
View of the main cases in the exhibition at The Pier Arts Centre, Stromness

I was recently asked to review a rather interesting exhibition. The review has now been published in The Orcadian and I have their permission, and that of The Pier Arts Centre who commissioned it, to publish it here.

Any exhibition bears a similarity to an onion – it is many layered. Not only will it be viewed by people of different backgrounds, each of whom takes away a different experience, but, in addition, a range of separate meanings is, inevitably, built in by the creators and their objects. Consider then, the fate of the hapless reviewer when confronted by an exhibition that not only presents several collections of material in interesting juxtapositions but also does so in separate locations. Such is my lot.

Conversations With Magic Stones takes place in three locations: The Orkney Museum; The Pier Arts Centre; and Stromness Museum. It makes use of four categories of material: contemporary art; modern/classical art; Orkney archaeology; ethnographic pieces.

The largest display occurs in the Orkney Museum where we are treated to a spectacular collection of ancient stone tools from Orkney. They range from as much as 12,000 years old to around 3000 years old, some are piled high, others neatly set out in isolation, a few nestle in the tins and boxes where they have rested since their discovery in years gone by. Alongside them, on the walls and in the cases, are works of art that draw on their inspiration. A shiny ‘carved stone ball’ of bronze by Babette Bartelmass plays with the idea of material as immutable, as do flint axes of glass and metal by Paul Musgrove. The latter’s prints, which layer images of the artefacts under site plans, notes and old labeling, create a new view of the past, as seen through the obscuring discolourations of time. Wall panels provide an encyclopaedic background of information. Through these we learn of the collectors who amassed many of the pieces on display.

In the Pier Art Centre, we are taken in to the studio, and mind, of Barbara Hepworth whose comments about ancient stone tools prompted the title and thrust of the work. Seeing her sculptures in juxtaposition with a selection of Orkney artefacts is chilling. It is a none too subtle reminder that for everything, even the most perfect art displayed in isolation on a carefully designed pedestal, there is a backstory and a context.

After the archaeological staginess of the Orkney Museum and the clarity and light of the Pier Art Centre, the Stromness Museum comes as something of a shock. The cases here are deliberately busy, the objects weird and wonderful, and the stories exotic. Here we learn of the pieces that found their way to Orkney from overseas, of the roles they played in their homelands and of the meanings they brought to Orkney. It is an evocative reminder of the way in which our roots help to shape the people we become and one cannot help wondering about the connections made between the worlds of past and present.

Overall, the exhibition creates some powerful impressions. The focus on the work of collectors, early excavators, and artists, invites us to enter a state of intellectual curiosity. We meet the people who sought to make sense of the relics of the past that were coming out of the ground across Orkney. People who cared passionately about the objects they were finding, and who handed this interest down to their descendants many of whom still treasure the pieces. With the objects come stories and a wonderful by-product of the work has been to enshrine these memories for the future, to prolong the life of the objects from their prehistoric origins into the twenty-first century and to lift them from fodder for archaeology into more complex beings – as the catalogue says: ‘an afterlife of things’.

It is an exhibition that, generally, eschews the principals of archaeological display. Photos lack scales, pieces lack provenance. This can be annoying for the academic viewer but it does avoid clutter and transforms the general atmosphere into that of an art exhibition. In reality, there is a catalogue and the Orkney museum does provide a handy computer to access data such as location, date and context through the project website. The feeling of having strayed from archaeology into art is emphasised by the wonderful photographs. It is a rare photographer indeed who can provide close up images of tooling or texture that will allow enlargement fit for a wall panel. In the Pier Art Centre this theme is pushed further as conventional archaeological terms are dropped and the artefacts become part of the artist’s studio.

Staying with the Pier, there is, perhaps unconsciously, an element of hagiography in the way in which the only woman to really feature in the exhibition has this location devoted to her. There is, for this reviewer, a twinge of regret that the women who undoubtedly collected elsewhere in Scotland, were not apparently collecting in Orkney (too busy minding the farms perhaps?). Yet, whatever happened in the past, it is worth noting that the exhibition team are more equally divided: they should be congratulated for a challenging, thought provoking display.

You will find the project website here

And the artist’s catalogue here

The Power of One

north sea flint
Illustration of the North Sea flint by Alan Braby. Can we really postulate the population of an extensive landmass on the basis of one, small, artefact?

Publication of the tanged point from Brodgar, Orkney, by Torben Bjarke Ballin and Hein Bjartmann Bjerck in the Journal of Lithic Studies has made me ponder on our attitude to isolated finds. The authors suggest that this flint arrowhead adds weight to the body of evidence for Palaeolithic activity in Scotland. To understand the significance of this you have to realise that tanged points occupy a semi mythological status in Scotland, adding apparent weight to elusive evidence for the earliest human activity in the country.

This particular piece was originally published (with two others from separate sites) as Palaeolithic by Livens in 1956, but as it was subsequently lost it has been impossible to investigate his claims. Recently, however, it has been rediscovered, mis-catalogued, in the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow (have a look at it here).

When I studied archaeology, the idea that Scotland had an antiquity that stretched back to the Mesolithic was considered doubtful for the north – to suggest even older occupation during the Palaeolithic was truly daring. I’m happy to say that we now have a respectable number of tanged points from various sites across Scotland, and, though none comes with an associated in-situ assemblage, there is increasing evidence for activity during the Palaeolithic, including the on-going excavation by Steven Mithen and Karen Wicks of an Ahrensburgian type assemblage at Rubha Port an t-Seilich on the west-coast island of Islay.

But, how much evidence is evidence? Single finds, from any other period (and perhaps in any other place) would rarely be considered compelling. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a great fan of the single find – a good part of my archaeological reputation has been built on a single find; one that sits in stately isolation in an even greater landscape than the Brodgar point. In 1986 I co-authored publication of a small and insignificant scraper that has since become known as ‘the North Sea Flint’. It was found below some 134m of sea water in the upper sediments of a core recovered during oil prospection roughly half way between Shetland and Norway. At first we toyed with the idea that this represented some prehistoric tragedy as a lone fisherman was swept out to sea and drowned. Or perhaps it had been lost from the hand of a Victorian collector, proudly displaying it to friends on board a North Sea steamer. Soon we realized that the location from which it had been retrieved would have been dry land and available for settlement towards the end of the last great Ice Age. So, we postulated the early population of a whole land mass (later to be named Doggerland by Bryony Coles) on the basis of a single flint. There were, at the time, no other finds from the northern part of Doggerland and though in recent years there is increasing evidence from the southern North Sea, the northern section is still, largely, unexplored.

core with North Sea flint
Core from the northern North Sea with the flint scraper showing clearly in the sandy deposits to the left

There are many reasons why archaeological evidence might be thin on the ground for the Upper Palaeolithic in Scotland. Population density was small and communities were highly mobile. Some sites may have been short lived; some may not have resulted in the deposition of artefactual material. Much of what we know about the communities elsewhere in north west Europe suggests that people were at home on the plains, following and hunting herds such as reindeer. Scotland, with its mountainous terrain was right at the edge of the territory in which they were most comfortable. And, of course, it was a long, long time ago: sites have been affected by a multitude of geomorphological and taphonomic processes since then which will have worked to dismantle the evidence.

So, perhaps we should congratulate ourselves on the way in which our archaeological skills have been honed to the extent that we can recognise and recover any evidence at all, patchy though it is. But I’m not sure about this. There is a good Palaeolithic record from England and Wales and I don’t think archaeologists there make excuses for a paucity of sites. No one nowadays doubts that groups of Upper Palaeolithic hunters did roam across Scotland (or I don’t think they do). So, what is going on? Perhaps we should start by looking at the way in which we undertake our Palaeolithic investigation. Or rather, perhaps we should consider the way in which we don’t do it. ScARF highlighted the problems with finding and managing sites that comprise mainly stone tools and they were focussing on the Mesolithic. I don’t think we have come to terms at all with the possibility that there might actually be a Palaeolithic record here.

Until we do we shall continue to idolize the power of one, by creating a Palaeolithic that is truly ‘join-the-dots’ archaeology as we try to (re)create whole landscape(s), with chronological and geographical depth, out of isolated finds and occasional serendipitous scatters of broken and abandoned flints.