Saturday, 3 August 2013

Digging Neolithic Orkney - end of week 1

Ring of Brodgar
This week I've been asking three questions:

1. Should I keep this?

2. How can you prove that?


3. Where are all the fish?

When digging, it can be hard to know whether the lump of orangey hard stuff you uncover in each gentle scrape of the 3" trowel is just another degraded piece of random red sandstone, or a valuable piece of 5000 year old pottery. To add to the uncertainty, this year the Ness of Brodgar excavators are collecting what has been classed as 'foreign stone': stones that are not obviously part of any structure or tool and come from elsewhere (this could be elsewhere on Orkney, or possibly further afield). Collecting such material is unusual in an archaeological dig and adds extra uncertainty and work for diggers and those who process the small finds, but it's part of fascinating work by the on-site geologist, Martha. She's examining stones from Brodgar to find out how far afield the people travelled and what they used such stones for. She is also looking for correlations between settlment patterns and geological formations, such as igneous intrusions.

Beautiful lichens adorn the Ring of Brodgar.
In a way all the rocks at the site are non-local, in the sense that they come from various quarries, none of which are exactly a stones throw from Brodgar. You have to marvel at the effort involved in transporting them here, especially the stones of the Rings of Brodgar and Stenness, which are each many tonnes in weight and have a tendency to laminate.

I'm told that the stones were brought from various areas as tributes from different clans. Someone else says that this area is a procession way from Skara Brae to Maes Howe. Ness of Brodgar was obviously a ritual structure - it was built to break up your journey because you couldn't just go around it. It was a result of hyper-ritualism due to climate change, neolithic people believed in an underworld... had gods, had shamans, took psychotropic drugs, went into trances...

Hearing this all I can think is: how can you prove any of it? It's a slight sticking point for me. The study of science trains you to rigorously stick to facts and evidence. The scientific method involves creating testable hypotheses and then trying and disprove them. Archaeology is tricky because statements of fact can only take you so far. To really understand ancient sites you need to utilise the imagination as well. You can never prove theories about the neolithic mind-set. No one knows what memes were being shared in 3000BC. You can only take the evidence you find - carvings, ornament, placement of structures and methods of building for example - and extrapolate from that. Often these extrapolations venture well beyond any provable ideas. They can be neither proven, nor disproved. Some theories seem more reflective of the cultural background of their proponent/s than of any solid evidence.

Amazing new find at Ness of Brodgar
It makes the scientist in me squirm.

My fellow UHI students don't feel the same - as undergrad archaeologists they embrace the uncertainty and positively enjoy knowing that these are all theories and everyone can hold their own informed ideas with relatively equal legitimacy.

Hmmm, sounds a bit too new-age for me, but I respect their work. The intellectual exercises of imagination are not outwith other scientific disciplines. Indeed, I spent the last two weeks privately postulating on what life-forms might result from evolution in the subsurface oceans of Europa, Jupiter's fourth largest moon. The difference, I would argue, is that one day we may discover the truth about Europa.

We will never know the truth about the Neolithic.

On the rainiest days when digging was called off, we were given demonstrations of flint napping from Hugo and talks on carbon finds such as burnt crab apples, seeds, nuts and pollen grains. Martha talked with us about geology, and on one especially washed out morning the UHI students and students from Willamette University, Oregon, went to the Ring of Brodgar with some knowledgeable site supervisors to examine the stones and talk about their creation and significance in the landscape.

Hugo, an expert flint-napper,
demonstrates his skills.
Using antler, bone and wood, Hugo delivers percussive blows
to create flakes which can become anything from a blade to
an axe.

Hugo created this razor sharp blade.

Hugo's rough axe. Made in under 10 minutes.

I really want to understand the local climate in the neolithic now, as it seems to be a crucial piece in the jigsaw of interpretation in Orkney. There are indications that sea level rise led to inundation of the nearby loch, which may have been a lagoon during the neolithic - possibly an excellent source of food. What effect would losing this food source have had on the local population?

When the people settled here, why didn't they collect any fossil fish? Martha and I puzzled over this together. Surely they would have seen such fossils and recognised them as fish, albeit squished, rocky fish. So why do none turn up among the amber and polished granites, beside the sea-smoothed pebbles and adorning claws and bones - why not a handsome fossil fish beside the fireplace? (I keep mine on a shelf in the bathroom).

Were they frightened by an animal seemingly turned to stone?

One of the supervisors tells me that whereas shellfish are common, fish bones are only rarely found among the middens of neolithic sites in Orkney. Is this because of the preservation properties of their skeletons, or did they seldom eat them? If the latter, this seems strange in a place surrounded by the sea. Like the modern nomads of Mongolia, could there have been a taboo against eating them? If so, could this link to a taboo against collecting their fossilised remains?

Mere postulations. Fuel for the scientific imagination that'll keep me burning for another week.

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