The uncommonly decent politics of reburial


To add a little con­text to the pre­vi­ous post: I’ve taken a course in short story writ­ing, and Silencing the Echo might have been an entry for a short story com­pet­i­tion in Wales — but I decided against enter­ing it.

The inspir­a­tion comes from a druid who cam­paigned for reburial of pre­his­toric remains in the UK. Avebury, I think. Reburial was, he said, a mat­ter of “com­mon decency”. As phrases go, it’s a good one. It taps into the British sense of decency and reas­on­able­ness. Or at least it does at first.

When it keeps com­ing up again and again it loses the feel­ing of a sin­cere spon­tan­eous state­ment and starts look­ing like a sound­bite. Looked at closely, it gives away the intol­er­ant nature of some of the campaigners.

Imagine we’re on oppos­ite sides, and I’m cam­paign­ing for com­mon decency. What does this make you? I sup­pose it could make you uncom­monly decent, but the insinu­ation is a moral fail­ing rather than simply a mat­ter of dis­agree­ment, and when the same tag is used over and over then it looks less like an accident.

An unques­tioned assump­tion is that reburial is what the per­son bur­ied would wish for. This is not cer­tain.
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Silencing the Echo


The black clouds unleashed their rain, pelt­ing Adlais’s face. The drops melted into her tears. Now, in the centre of the circle, the priests grip­ping her, she under­stood what happened to her friend Branwen.

Once again the crops had failed. The gods were angry. Someone in the tribe must be anger­ing them and the tribe would have to be cleansed. Adlais had been called to the priests, who had asked if she would sing at the cleans­ing. She had never liked cleans­ings, but it was import­ant it was done right, so she had will­ingly agreed and drank from the horn to sig­nify her sub­mis­sion to the gods. Now, barely an hour later, her head felt like it was split­ting, her ears rang with sound of her own heart­beat and her limbs jerked of their own voli­tion as the priest lis­ted her crimes.

Witnesses came into the circle to testify to see­ing events that had never happened, to spy­ing acts that had never been com­mit­ted. They briefly recited their words, as they had for Branwen last year. Then they scur­ried back bey­ond the safety of the ditch that sep­ar­ated the world from this cursed space. As always, the accused was chal­lenged to deny her crimes, but Adlais’s blood felt thick and pois­on­ous. The words would not come to her tongue. She had been on the other side too many times to hope that people would see her dis­tress. Her silence would con­demn her. Her spasms would be vis­ible evid­ence of the guilt tor­tur­ing her.

The judge­ment came. Adlais filled with fear. Not for her­self, her future was as obvi­ous as the grave in front of her, but for her fam­ily and her friends watch­ing from bey­ond the ditch. They were des­per­ate, hop­ing this cleans­ing would finally rid the land of the blight. But what gods would be appeased by falsehoods?

It was almost a relief when the last act came. The blow to the back of her skull sur­prised her, as she dis­covered the pain in her head could indeed get worse. She stumbled, then fell into the pit dug for her, to the cheers and relief of the watch­ers. Still awake, she lay in her final bed as the priests began to cover her. Adlais cried. Not for her­self but for the friend she had aban­doned a year ago.
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Mick Aston


Mick Aston was prob­ably the best-known archae­olo­gist in the UK. I’d also go so far as to say that he was the most influ­en­tial archae­olo­gist of the last 25 years.

Mick Aston

Mick Aston (centre). Photo by Wessex Archaeology.

The reason is Time Team, an archae­olo­gical series on Channel 4. If Sky at Night is Astronomy then Time Team when Mick Aston was in it was archae­ology. Its suc­cess massively expan­ded the uptake of archae­ology by stu­dents. Mick Aston’s idea was respons­ible sup­port­ing an incal­cul­able num­ber of jobs in uni­ver­sity depart­ments. It’s easy to over­look was an aston­ish­ing idea Time Team was.

The tra­di­tional doc­u­ment­ary places the aca­demic speaker at the author­ity speak­ing Truth. A recent example is Rise of the Continents, where Mantle Plumes are presen­ted as unques­tioned fact as noted in the post at The Theatre of Reason. A com­mon grumble is that sci­ence is a pro­cess not a body of fact, so how do you show pro­cess? Mick Aston reckoned you could pro­duce a usable brief eval­u­ation of an archae­olo­gical site in three days and this became Time Team. A cam­era crew fol­lowed an archae­olo­gical team as they dug for three days.

Below I’ve embed­ded the epis­ode from Blaenavon, which I hope 4oDDocumentaries have made widely access­ible.* You could make a drink­ing game from the num­ber of times someone says they don’t know some­thing. To steal a line from Paul Bahn: it’s not about find­ing things, it’s about find­ing things out.

As a meas­ure of impact, I offer another series, Bonekickers. Bonekickers was an attempt by the Life on Mars team to pro­duce a drama around an archae­ology unit. It was laughed out of the sched­ules because Time Team had demon­strated to a large chunk of the UK pop­u­la­tion how archae­ology worked. To be fair Bonekickers was pretty awful in its own right, but it’s thanks to the impact of Time Team that it became truly ris­ible. Can you ima­gine that hap­pen­ing with any other aca­demic discipline?

Mick Aston’s influ­ence meant that he became a ste­reo­type of an archae­olo­gist in his own time. That could sound snide, but rather it’s a meas­ure of how loved by the pub­lic he was.

He also had the poten­tial to keep innov­at­ing. After leav­ing Time Team, he’d been work­ing with Timothy Taylor on Dig Village. In some ways he was in the twi­light of his career, but he still could have shone for many years like the even­ing star.

Photo Time Team in Salisbury by Wessex Archaeology. This image licensed under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa licence.

*I’m not optim­istic that it’s vis­ible bey­ond the UK. You can search for Time Team on YouTube, but embed­ding those videos isn’t sens­ible. Uploading a pro­gramme whole­sale, breach­ing the copy­right isn’t neg­ated by say­ing “No infringe­ment of copy­right is inten­ded”. These videos will be com­ing down sooner or later. My per­sonal favour­ite epis­ode is prob­ably Llygadwy / Celtic Spring, but that’s not so typ­ical of the series.

The opposite of Open Access


Here’s an inter­est­ing paper I found while look­ing for inform­a­tion on a topic: EVALUATING THE STATUS OF UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITES IN EGYPT. I’ve no idea if the con­tent is inter­est­ing. However, the reason I don’t know that (and prob­ably never will) is what makes the paper so interesting.

It’s avail­able at -http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​5​8​4​8​/​A​P​B​J​.​2​0​1​2​.​0​0​005– http://​www​.ingenta​con​nect​.com/​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​a​p​b​j​/​i​j​m​c​/​2​0​1​2​/​0​0​0​0​0​0​1​4​/​0​0​0​0​0​0​0​1​/​a​r​t​0​0​005 . Actually I prob­ably should have said it’s ‘avail­able’ with air quotes instead. The reason is obvi­ous when you try to down­load it. Like 90% of journ­als you can’t because you need a sub­scrip­tion, but usu­ally there’s an option to buy the paper at some high rate. Not here. You have to sub­scribe to the journal to get the paper.

To be clear to read this paper on UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Egypt, because I have an interest in archae­olo­gical her­it­age, I have to sub­scribe to a journal that pub­lishes in the same issue:

I’m will­ing to believe these are all excel­lent papers in their field and well worth £150 as a bundle to the right per­son — but not to me. Publishing this way really does lock away research to a nar­row audi­ence. The bar­ri­ers to get­ting the paper mean I won’t be includ­ing it in any research databases.

The punch­line? Check the name of the publisher.

#blog   #archae­ology   #her­it­age   

Edited due to a com­ment by +Rheza Rozendaal : I really should have checked the DOIs

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If your Stonehenge theory is nonsense, is mine rational because it’s not yours?

Revellers at the solstice in Stonehenge
Revellers at the solstice in Stonehenge

Sound at Stonehenge

I’m cur­rently work­ing with a group of blog­gers on a site to be launched some­where in the next few months. I’m not sure where yet. One of the fea­tures of the site is an informal rule that we won’t com­ment on news till at least seven days have passed from mak­ing the head­lines. There’s a couple of reas­ons for this.

We’re all busy. Chasing the news is work and takes time. If we get stopped before we can fin­ish it could be a while before we pick up the story again. In the mean­time hot news has become old cold news and the key points have already been said a dozen times by every­one else. The post gets spiked and the time is wasted. Intentionally plan­ning for a longer cycle changes how you approach a story and gives you not just the story to ana­lyse but also the reac­tion too. In the case of the Stonehenge acous­tics story the reac­tion is more inter­est­ing than the base story itself.

As a reminder Stephen Waller presen­ted a talk at a meet­ing of American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver. In it he pro­posed that the design of Stonehenge was related to aud­it­ory inter­fer­ence pat­terns between the sound of two flutes being played. Andy Burnham points out the obvi­ous prob­lem in his com­ment.

Waller rigged two flutes to an air pump so they played the same note con­tinu­ously” OK, fine, so how on earth is this rel­ev­ant to the prac­tic­al­it­ies of an ancient soci­ety? In order to get strong, static can­cel­la­tions in the sound you would need equal and unvary­ing sound pres­sure levels from each instru­ment, and for the sources to be from the same two points in space. How pre­cisely would two flute play­ers do this in prac­tice without an air pump? ie hav­ing to take breaths and carry on this trick for any length of time. This is utter nonsense.

Andy Burnham is pretty much gold in this thread. In reac­tion to the idea this sound could be achieved by cir­cu­lar breath­ing, he also adds:

I don’t thin cir­cu­lar breath­ing is the answer — it’s pretty dif­fi­cult on low res­ist­ance wind instru­ments such as the flute. Didgeridoos and such­like won’t exhibit this effect — you need a high fre­quency pure tone — as close to a sine wave as pos­sible — ie a flute. Bagpipes wouldn’t work either, unless someone inven­ted some sort of ‘flute bag­pipes’. A reedy bag­pipe sound is rich in har­mon­ics. The har­monic fre­quen­cies from the two instru­ments won’t cre­ate stand­ing wave can­cel­la­tions in the same places in space as the fun­da­mental tones, so you won’t get same strong can­cel­la­tion effect. And as I said you also need two fixed amp­litudes and closely fixed point sources for the effect to work.

Sound is a dif­fi­cult sub­ject for archae­olo­gists. Flutes or pipes seem likely, as to drums, but the closest pre­his­toric musical instru­ments, that I know archae­olo­gists have found, are lurs from Denmark. These date to around the 8th cen­tury BC and sur­vived because they were bronze, not organic mater­ial like wood or bone. You can see them in the logo for Lurpak but­ter. It’s been a while since I’ve read about this, so I’d be sur­prised if there weren’t now some­thing older known. There are a couple of can­did­ates for bone flutes that are older, this is the most prom­ising arte­fact, but I don’t know how widely accep­ted they are yet.

Even though there’s scant evid­ence for music in the Neolithic and Bronze Age British Isles, it’s an odd leap to say it didn’t exist. Music in some form seems to be a con­stant in human soci­ety, so this is where a min­im­al­ist approach breaks down. But it’s not just musical instru­ments that are miss­ing. I sus­pect a lot of Stonehenge is miss­ing too.
Bits of it have broken off and it’s easy to spot where stones were miss­ing but refilling these gaps, as many recon­struc­tions do, doesn’t go far enough for me. The stones are the skel­eton of Stonehenge. We don’t know if they were the whole body. We do know that the skel­eton was a lot of work. The hard sar­sen stones are craf­ted like wood, with tenon and mor­tice joints. Archaeologists cur­rently believe that the blue­stones were trans­por­ted from far Wales. In light of this what else would have been at a liv­ing Stonehenge?

If you visit places of wor­ship in mod­ern times, there’s a bit more than stone. There’s wooden seats, often dec­or­ated rather than plain. The walls are painted, win­dows often dec­or­ated. It’s not unusual to find holy books n plush vel­vet cush­ions and tex­tiles dyed in strik­ing col­ours draw­ing the eye here and there. We also know tex­tiles were used in Neolithic and Bronze Age times. So after the thou­sands of man-hours shap­ing the stones, how likely is it that Gareth turned to Shane and said: “That’s that done. No point in wast­ing time dec­or­at­ing it with tartans or drapes. That’ll just be tedi­ous and gaudy.”?

Once you add tex­tiles into Stonehenge the acous­tic and visual prop­er­ties change. There are many argu­ments that “If you look out of this gap you can see this star,” but you can’t if Blodwyn’s nifty eth­nic rug is in the way. As sci­ent­ists archae­olo­gists need a min­im­al­ist model of Stonehenge as a found­a­tion to build on, but this min­im­al­ist model is an unfin­ished work. It’s a tool to build an idea of what Stonehenge looked like on. If you’re going to say that it’s the fin­ished model and we don’t need tex­tiles, then all recon­struc­tions should show any­one there naked because there’s no evid­ence for the clothes people wore there either.

As Andy Burnham poin­ted out, Steven Waller’s approach misses the prac­tical use of Stonehenge by ancient peoples, and in this case adding people into the past makes Waller’s pro­posal either unwork­able or an aston­ish­ing Jenga tower of spe­cial plead­ing. It’s safe to say I’m uncon­vinced, but I’ve not been too impressed with some of the reac­tions to the story either. “Crank’ seemed a com­mon opin­ion, If Steven Waller were a crank then by present­ing his work at a sci­entific con­fer­ence he’s still closer to pro­fes­sional prac­tice than archae­olo­gists who issue a press release now before a talk in a few months time.

In fact a browse of his web­site shows he’s not likely to be a crank, just ter­ribly unaware of the dif­fer­ences in approach between US and UK prehistory.

The bulk of his work is on rock art at American pet­ro­glyph sites. The acous­tics of rock art in the US is a new field, but pro­du­cing some inter­est­ing res­ults. Some archae­olo­gists are find­ing archae­oacous­tics much more intriguing than, to pick a ran­dom example, archae­oastro­nomy. But American pre­his­tory is dif­fer­ent to British pre­his­tory. They have a richer rock art record, espe­cially in the south­w­est. They also have eth­no­graphic records and research that can help con­nect mean­ing to sym­bols. It’s not per­fect, and I’d like to debunk one inter­pret­a­tion of a site this sum­mer, but it’s very very dif­fer­ent to the lim­ited things we can say about rock art here. It means that Waller’s American work can rely on cul­tural inform­a­tion that we simply don’t have here. What is accep­ted by US archae­olo­gists about US sites is extremely spec­u­lat­ive when applied to UK sites.

Very few people have com­men­ted on work around archae­oacous­tics in gen­eral in rela­tion to this story. A few com­menters have men­tioned Deveraux’s work, but mainly the thrust has been this story must be debunked. I don’t think for a moment archae­olo­gists have con­sciously decided the out­sider must be expelled, but I won­der if an eager­ness to por­tray this as non­sense indic­ates some­thing more. Subconsciously does reject­ing Waller as non­sense and the oppos­ite of what you do men­tally reaf­firm that your own the­or­ies must there­fore by default be sound reasoning?

For some­thing more pos­it­ive about how sound can be explored in archae­ology, Alan Boyle has writ­ten an inter­est­ing piece on MSNBC’s Cosmic Log.

What lies beneath Achill-henge?


Achill-henge. Photo by Seequinn

It’s good to see Achill-henge being picked up by the BBC. This is a story that’s been around for a while. I think RTÉ’s video report is access­ible world­wide. The BBC just has a webpage that’s an intro­duc­tion to the story. You can also listen to the radio pro­gramme (world­wide I think) with the rel­ev­ant seg­ment at 6m04s.

It’s not a bad story, but from an archae­olo­gical point of view it misses the most inter­est­ing things. Firstly build­ing this ertsatz archae­olo­gical site may have dam­aged a real site. Usually before con­struc­tion there will be test digs to check the con­struc­tion won’t des­troy some­thing of his­tor­ical import­ance. Achill is an extremely sens­it­ive archae­olo­gical site. There’s a long run­ning field school there because it has such a rich archae­olo­gical record. If you’re a fan of pre­his­toric remains, it seems a bit mad to risk des­troy­ing one to make a copy.

The second thing is the tem­plate chosen for the site. It’s Stonehenge. It’s a shoddy Stonehenge as any­one who’s been there could tell you, but it’s clearly a ring of tri­lithons. You don’t get those in Ireland. There’s a romantic ideal that the pre­his­toric British Isles were all Celtic but, as we learn more about sites, it’s becom­ing clear that there are dis­tinct­ive dif­fer­ences in tra­di­tions around the islands.

Tomnaverie Stone Circle

Tomnaverie Stone Circle. Photo by Cameron Diack

This is Tomnaverie Recumbent Stone Circle. The recum­bent bit is the low stone in the middle, flanked by two tall stones. There’s plenty of stone circles like this around Aberdeenshire, but you don’t get so many of them any­where else. There is a pos­sible astro­nom­ical align­ment. These circles tend to be set up so that the sum­mer full moon appears to roll across the top of the recum­bent stone every 18 years or so, due to the way the Moon’s orbit wobbles.

Drombeg Stone Circle

Drombeg Recumbent Stone Circle. Photo by Todd Slagter

This is Drombeg Recumbent Stone Circle. It’s com­pact and tidy, but the tallest stones are on the oppos­ite side to the recum­bent stone. This is more typ­ical of Irish circles. The tall stones can be seen as a delib­er­ate a portal for entry. The astro­nom­ical align­ments are dif­fer­ent for Irish circles. They tend to be facing south-westish and this could be an align­ment to winter sol­stice sunset.

Even though they look sim­ilar, these stone circles could be telling us very dif­fer­ent things about belief. If we trust the pat­terns emer­ging from study­ing groups of monu­ments, not just the ones we like, then they’re almost oppos­ites. The key event in Scotland seems to hap­pen with the Moon in sum­mer. In Ireland they’re look­ing to the Sun in winter.

There’s an ongo­ing argu­ment about whether sum­mer sun­rise or winter sun­set was more import­ant at Stonehenge. I favour winter sun­set, but to some extent this is just as reflect­ive of how you view pre­his­toric life as it is about the data. In addi­tion there’s plenty of evid­ence show­ing that Stonehenge was repeatedly remod­elled, includ­ing a pos­sible shift from lunar to solar alignments.

In any event whatever the tra­di­tion was at Stonehenge it’s a massive leap to think what happened there was reflect­ive of beliefs across the Irish Sea. Stonehenge is so embed­ded as an iconic brand for pre­his­toric archae­ology in the British Isles, that British pre­his­tory is now col­on­ising per­cep­tions of what a pre­his­toric Ireland would look like.

I don’t know to what extent that’s a good thing. Modern states are recent inven­tions, and some archae­olo­gists will cringe at the idea of a pre­his­toric Ireland or UK. Recognising mod­ern bound­ar­ies don’t apply to the past is a sens­ible fea­ture. At the same time an appeal­ing com­mon past does risk los­ing some of what makes places loc­ally distinctive.

Achill-henge. Photo by Seequin. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.
Tomnaverie Stone Circle. Photo by Cameron Diack. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.
Drombeg Stone Circle. Photo by Todd Slagter. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.