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.

Immersive Archaeology at Stonehenge

Stonehenge in low winter light, December 2004
Stonehenge – any interpretation includes an element of supposition, but we need to think how best to make it come alive.

I heard a nice little piece about immersive archaeology on the radio recently. This comprises a new form of presentation of the past which makes use of gaming technology to reconstruct ancient sites and monuments as they might have appeared when in use. It includes additional atmospheric detail such as noise (or the lack of it in the case of traffic). Apparently, Dr Rupert Till from the University of Huddersfield has recreated the sounds of Stonehenge in a virtual tour that makes use of ancient instruments.

The radio interview noted that this was a controversial development in archaeology, making use, as it does, of supposition rather than fact. We can never know what the sounds of the Stone Age sounded like. They did go on to include a snippet from Aaron Watson, whose work I much admire, and he validated the project; but I felt that there was still an element of doubt and it got me thinking.

Firstly, the implied information that archaeology deals with ‘fact’. In reality, I can’t think of any interpretation in archaeology that is totally factual. We may record a burial – but we don’t know the precise details. Our assessment of the childhood home of the individual (if we make one) will be based on an evaluation of several possible matches for the isotopic detail gleaned from their teeth. Information relating to age will be based on an evaluation of the skeleton; diet, manner of death, burial rites: all similarly related to the evaluative skills of various specialists. We may record a stone circle – it is still impossible to be certain that every stone was in place at the same time, perhaps some had fallen before the last were erected. We record a structure – we interpret its function, even its appearance. We don’t know what it was used for, we guess. We put these elements together into a story in order to construct a human narrative.           There is no such thing as archaeological truth.

Secondly, the nature of the narratives that we construct. If we base them on archaeological remains alone they will be sorry, monochrome, stories indeed. I am constantly amazed by how drab and grey archaeological finds tend to be. Not surprisingly, after several millennia buried in the earth, colour and texture tend to have disappeared. But our lives are not monochrome, and this is as true of the past as it is of today. If we are truly to build a narrative of the past, we have to consider those elements that no longer survive, elements such as sound, colour, sensation such as warmth and light.

To make the archaeological narrative work we have to fill in the gaps between the details we amass from archaeology. The trick is to fill those gaps with detail that is bounded within the realm of probability. Understanding where that realm lies is the job of the archaeologist and colleagues.

So, I say – excellent. I’m all for immersive archaeology. Yes, it leads us into supposition, but that is the nature of archaeology. It may be territory where we need to employ our interpretive skills a bit more openly than we do when working on a conventional archaeological report. But lets not kid ourselves: that report contains just as much doubt as the virtual reality headset or the phone app. As long as we base our scenarios in the available information then it does not matter if the story changes from time to time. We don’t really think that our word on a site is the definitive last word do we? People are always reappraising things in light of new information.

I’m not in archaeology just to talk to myself, or my colleagues (apologies to my colleagues). I’m in archaeology in order to make the past come alive for everyone. And I would be in dereliction of duty if I did not make use of all possible techniques to do this. Including new ones.

Virtual reality, immersive archaeology, soundscapes – bring them on. Hopefully they will soon become an integral part of  the way in which we present the past – whether in museums, out on walks, perhaps even at home. It is so good to see people taking steps towards this.

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.

Circling the Square

The smaller bluestones sit just inside the sarsen trilithons at Stonehenge and act to block your way into the centre of the circle

There is an interesting paper out by Tim Darvill in which he discusses the architecture of Stonehenge and the way in which it is designed to manipulate the experience of those using the monument. In particular, he considers the use of a square element set within an outer circle. Darvill is not negating the way in which Stonehenge developed out of a series of earlier settings, but his argument focuses on the manifestation that left the remains we see today and on the relationship between the bluestone elements of the monument and those comprising the sarsen stones. His interpretation of all this is very personal and some of it has been rehearsed by him before, not least the possibility that the incorporation of the bluestones may have brought special healing properties to Stonehenge. I can’t comment on that, but his paper did put me in mind of my own thoughts when I visited Stonehenge recently and had the privilege of entering into the heart of the monument.

What shocked me as I walked beneath the sarsen trilithon that is traditionally seen as the entrance to the centre (on the side by the Avenue) was the way in which the bluestone circle blocked me from entering further into the heart of the site. In order to progress I had to make a decision: to turn left or turn right. That, in itself is not unusual. What surprised me is that this is precisely the way in which one experiences the monumental structure known (by us) as Structure 8 at Barnhouse in Orkney. At Barnhouse you enter Structure 8 through a narrow break on the eastern side of the outer wall (nb: popular images often show an entrance at the north opposite the entrance to the inner circle, but the main break through the outer wall is to the east and that is the one that appears in Richards’ publication). Once inside, you are confronted by another wall, seemingly unbroken and running to both left and right. Eventually, by following this wall around, one reaches a more complex entrance passage running into the heart of the site. Structure 8, incidentally, incorporates the square-in-a-circle formation that Darville notes at Stonehenge (as Darville recognises). Curiously, this is precisely the symbol used as the World Heritage logo – though in that case the circle represents nature while the square represents human endeavour. It is a powerful motif.

I’ve no idea what this means. There are many, many questions left unanswered: was the inner structure at Barnhouse roofed? Was the outer passage roofed? How high were the walls? How, precisely, were the different elements of the structure at Stonehenge differentiated? What was it all for? What is interesting to me is the overt manipulation of the human experience. I’m fascinated by the way in which our surroundings can cause us to move in certain directions almost unconsciously. Of course, it may have been very overt in the Neolithic, perhaps there were big red warning markers telling people how to behave once inside. That does not really concern me. But I think we can see this sort of control manifest at a variety of other sites and I’m wondering if it is fundamental to this type of Neolithic public space.

Structure 10 at Ness of Brodgar is not completely excavated in plan, but it looks as if it may incorporate a similar entrance system (curiously, the plan suggests that the rounded element of the structure lay inside the square element here, though perhaps the outside wall of the whole site functioned as a rounded boundary). Even the architecture of the henge sites with their banks and ditches, stone circles and interior settings, as at the Stones of Stenness, could be seen as incorporating a series of concentric passages. We don’t know, can’t know, what it means, but to me it suggests that the design of these monuments incorporated some very specific, and perhaps symbolic, behavioural control and that this was repeated from one site to another. Those who visited Barnhouse would have known what was expected of them at Stonehenge.

As, of course, do we – as disciples of the heritage age we arrive at these sites prepared to display certain behaviour: we exhibit awe; we usually walk round in a certain way; we read the guidebooks; we take photographs; we look for the entrance booth to pay; we don’t leave graffiti…

The Challenge of Stonehenge

Stonehenge in low winter light, December 2004
Stonehenge never loses its ability to inspire wonder and mystery. I suspect this is something we have in common with our ancestors who built it.

Was anyone else challenged by watching BBC Four romp through the interpretation of Stonehenge through the ages for Timewatch last night? It wasn’t the content – I loved that, there was some great archive footage and it was very interesting to summarize how we have looked at Stonehenge over the last seventy years. What got me was the way in which Stonehenge emerged as a powerful symbol of patriarchy.

I’m not talking prehistory here (well, maybe just a little bit). I’m talking archaeology. Thank goodness the programme was presented by Alice Roberts (I wonder if that was a deliberate decision). Other than that, apart from the work done by Jacqueline McKinley, all of those interviewed or shown in the old footage were men. I did not even try to count them.

This is not the fault of those making the programme. They can only work with the material available. But it is a problem for archaeology. You might think that it is just a sad reflection of our profession in the past, and that things are better now. But I am afraid that is not the case because the Beeb could apparently only find men to comment on the work. Now, I know that all three commentators were people who have been actively engaged with research at Stonehenge in recent years. Indeed, two of them appeared in the earlier footage. But is it true to say that women have nothing to contribute to the Stonehenge debate today?

I wonder if the problem is a little wider than this? Where are the Mary Beards of British Archaeology? We need women with gravitas who can communicate, but what is gravitas? Well, off the cuff, lets assume that in order to have it you need an academic post (two of last night’s commentators were cited as in academia, the other was in popular publishing). I’ve just had a quick look at the staff pages of the four universities in Scotland that have archaeology departments. It is difficult to be certain because each lists staff in different ways, but it looks as if there are a total of 57 academic staff, of whom 23 are women and 34 are men. In order to assess whether or not they have ‘gravitas’ I then tried to investigate the standing of their post. Again it is difficult, but it looks as if there are 18 posts across Scotland at senior lecturer or above, and of these 3 are held by women and 15 by men (interestingly that means that at lower grades 20 are women and 19 are men).

Of course it might just be that women don’t do research on Stone Circles? I’m not going to get into that debate here, though I have a feeling that women are as interested in broadscale Neolithic topics as men are? I had a quick look at Colin Richards’ book Building the Great Stone Circles of the North: he lists 27 co-authors, of whom 18 are men and 9 are women.

I’m not sure where this leaves us. But I’m sad that archaeology can still come over as such a male dominated profession. In fact, thinking of people like Kathleen Kenyon and Isobel Smith, I’m sad that archaeology has ever come over as a male dominated profession. Perhaps men just get to excavate higher status sites?  Perhaps we listen more seriously to what men say? Perhaps women measure achievement in different ways? Perhaps women leave academia to move into other posts? Popular communication is a vital part of archaeology in the twenty-first century, though. So it would be good to break that barrier with more than a handful of women.

While I’m moaning – I’ve another gripe about the programme: where was the footage of Foamhenge? Channel Five’s full size polystyrene replica of Stonehenge lingers in my memory for the way in which seeing all the stones upright, as if functioning as a single entity, made me think in different ways about the monument. Of course, last night’s programme was only drawing on BBC archives; my fantasy now is for a programme that uses all the material, whatever the channel, and incorporates a greater diversity of voices in the twenty-first century commentary on past interpretations.