Friday, August 20, 2010


Farmer Anders Axel Petersson (1870–1930) shows an offering kettle to an antiquarian surveyor in 1927 in Sorunda parish, Södermanland, Sweden. The kettle is a socalled ‘giant’s kettle’. In folk tradition this geological phenomenon was supposed to be a kettle used by the giants that originally inhabited the land Source: The Antiquarian-Topographical Archive, Stockholm
Both archaeologists and folklorists trace the origins of their disciplines to the works of antiquarians in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, but they view antiquarians through different lenses (for detailed accounts of the history of archaeology and of folklore studies respectively, see Bahn 1996; Daniel 1980, 1981; Dorson 1968b; Newall 1980; Trigger 1989). Archaeologists focus on antiquarian recording of archaeological monuments—Stukeley’s detailed drawings of Avebury, or Inigo Jones’ and Stukeley’s plans of Stonehenge before some of the stones had fallen—as examples of antiquarian concern with material culture and monuments of prehistoric Britain. They see this concern prefiguring archaeological interests in these same aspects of the past (Ucko et al. 1991).

Folklorists, on the other hand, are more likely to note the same antiquarians’ descriptions of ‘popular antiquities’, which included traditions, legends, tales, sayings, proverbs, songs and activities. Antiquarians themselves rarely distinguished between observing ancient material relics and recording ‘relics’ of ancient practices or beliefs in the form of folk rituals and tales. They viewed the latter as ‘sharing with material remains the same character of misshapen fragments surviving from a bygone day’ (Fenton 1993:7).

These fragments, both material and oral, are viewed by antiquarians, folklorists and archaeologists alike as fast disappearing relics of the past (see, for example, Bruford and Macdonald 1994; A.Carmichael 1928; Henderson [1879] 1967; Macpherson 1768; Thoms [1846] 1965; preservation legislation). This tradition of the threat to heritage materials follows on antiquarians’ convictions that they were preserving information about the nature of the ‘vulgar’ people, reflecting the original cultures, character and histories of their nations (Wright [1846] 1968:41). Whenever relics of the past have been recorded, they have been thought to be in imminent danger of being lost for all time. With regard to folklore, however, we agree with those who have argued that this concern is largely based on a misunderstanding of its character:

Folklore is not a phenomenon that is dying out or decaying or showing any signs of being in a decline… Certainly it ages, and one part of it and then another may die off. But it is also capable of breeding; it grows, it spreads, it feeds on other matter, and it has the greatest ability to adapt to changing circumstances. (Opie and Opie 1980:68)

Archaeological sites, too, were threatened by destruction, through development and agricultural intensification. Antiquarians, and later archaeologists, therefore recorded them as comprehensively as they could, in some cases knowing that their records were likely to be all that future generations of archaeologists would have. For example, on the island of Rügen in Germany only 54 megalithic monuments are preserved today; archaeological research makes the most of Friedrich von Hagenow’s map and description from 1829, when 236 megaliths were still known (Schuldt 1972:10, 16–18). Archaeological concern with preservation and recording continues today, through the practices of cultural resource (heritage) management (CRM) and through other surveys like those conducted by the Association of Certificated Field Archaeologists on the island of Raasay, Scotland (see for example Macdonald and Wood 1997).




Everyone concerned with the past—archaeologist, historian, politician, storyteller, priest, parent—constructs ideas and images of the past from materials available in the present. Through these ideas and images, we invest meaning in past events; but these meanings may differ according to our perspectives. We view the past through the lenses of the present; indeed, people have probably always done so. Archaeology and folklore are two of the many lenses through which the past is given meaning, and it is the aim of this article to explore and understand differences and similarities in how archaeology and folklore create, and are created through, ideas about the past. In the intersections between these similarities and differences, we hope to find new lenses, through which we can begin to create alternative images of people’s histories. The articles that follow will explore the meanings people attach to the past, or to artefacts associated with the past. They will demonstrate the value of developing a dialogue between different systems of meaning. What aspects of the past, time, material culture are remembered, retold in folklore, and made meaningful in popular culture? How may such memories, stories and practices inform archaeological interpretations?

We do not seek to define a new field, folklore and archaeology (comparable to zooarchaeology or ethnoarchaeology); rather, we have set out to explore the possibilities of developing an interdisciplinary dialogue, and making this dialogue fruitful to the future development of both disciplines. In contrast to a common archaeological practice of borrowing methods, models or data from another field, we want to open a discourse between the fields, believing that a conversation about the many methods, models and sets of data that already exist in the two disciplines will enrich both, by creating new approaches to thinking about common questions, and indeed by raising new questions. The wide range of authors and approaches in our volume gives an indication of the diverse realms this dialogue may address. The multiple ways in which the connections between archaeology and folklore may serve, stimulate or trouble archaeology reveal the potential for a dialogue at the interface of the two fields.

In our introduction, we will briefly review some of the historical background for a study of folklore and archaeology, outlining the origins of both fields of study in a common antiquarian background and tracing the divergence of the two fields over the past century. We will then outline several lines of inquiry through which a study of folklore can enrich and broaden archaeological constructions of the past. First, we will deal with questions about historical accuracy, which lie at the heart of archaeologists’ worries about the reliability of folklore as evidence or data for archaeological interpretation. We will argue that this concern is based on limited views of both folklore evidence and more conventional archaeological evidence. Next we will address the value of folklore for understanding the history of monuments and the multiple meanings those monuments carry throughout their histories. Finally, we will give a brief overview of other areas where attention to folklore can inform archaeological interpretation and practice: issues of time, of identity, of the politics and sociology of archaeology as a discipline, and of the relationships between academic archaeology and the public. These issues do not define the limits of the dialogue between archaeology and folklore; we merely set them out as first steps in demonstrating the value of these connections.

Our thinking is grounded in four key convictions about archaeology, folklore and the creation of history.

First, our arguments are not based in the belief that folklore contains accurate and reliable representations of past behaviour, beliefs or events. The reliability of folklore for historical information has been, as we will discuss further below, the subject of often contentious argument. Our approach seeks to move beyond this problem. Folklore is not the only field where a concern with historical accuracy is problematic; archaeology too gives us the past as perceived and interpreted by present people. Neither field can be relied upon to tell us about the actual past. Folklore does give us a broader understanding of the past as perceived, remembered, and made significant by both past and present people.

Second, we are interested in what monuments and other archaeological objects meant (and mean) to people in their respective lifeworlds and how they were (and are) used in the formation of collective identities. In this context, the antiquity of a particular element of folklore is less important than its significance for interpreting meaning. As interpretive archaeologies have come to understand, the past is a creation of everyone who interprets material remains or fragments of tradition from past people’s lives, whether in the form of folklore or archaeological study. This past can be crucial for people’s understanding of the cultural landscape and their identities therein. Where these identities and different approaches to the past conflict, it is important to develop ways of establishing a dialogue among them.

These problems of accuracy and meaning are fundamental to the history of archaeological uses of folklore. Previously, when archaeologists attempted to apply folklore to archaeological materials, they often found that folk tradition and archaeological remains did not match. Rather than simply rejecting folklore as unreliable and inaccurate, several authors deal with these problems and find that, when folklore is analysed (as archaeological materials have to be analysed), it sometimes does provide plausible interpretation for those materials, whether or not they can prove unbroken continuity of transmission.

Finally, archaeological approaches to sites and monuments most frequently focus on the time of their construction and intensive use. However, visible monuments have life histories as well, extending from their construction up until the present. Folklore reflects some of the later interpretations of prehistoric sites, and contemporary folklore constitutes one important part of present-day understandings of monuments. It thus supplements recent concerns about the role and interpretation of the past in the present, which have mainly focused on various aspects of ‘managed’ heritage.

It will be argued throughout that folklore is valuable to archaeologists because it offers us alternative ideas about the past that counter our tendency to portray everyone in all time as versions of ourselves, and because it provides knowledge about the continued importance and therefore the later history of archaeological monuments.

Scotland the Ancient

Friday, August 13, 2010

There have been people in Europe for at least 50,000 years, and it seems likely that in earlier Palaeolithic periods when the climate was kind (prior to c. 25000 BC) nomadic bands from the sparse population may have moved about northern Britain. However, all traces of humanity were obliterated by the Ice Age that ended in Scotland roughly 10,000 years ago. Glaciation helped resettlement because, in a reversal of global warming, water became ice and sea levels dropped dramatically, creating causeways between Britain and the Continent and between Scotland and Ireland. Climate continued to improve in this Mesolithic period (up to c. 4000 BC) and trees, animals, and eventually people moved northwards.

Scotland may once again have had some human inhabitants as early as 8000 BC, but the earliest recorded settlement is of a group of hunters on the Isle of Rum dating to c. 7000 BC. Extensive settlement did not take place until after c. 6000 BC, however the colonists were clearly accomplished sailors as many archaeological remains are found in the Western Isles. By this stage, the relative simplicity of early hunters had given way to hunter-gatherers’ extensive exploitation of environmental resources on land, river, and sea. Yet these were still nomads who moved seasonally and left limited archaeological remains, their few artefacts suggesting that settlers came less from England than from Ireland and the North Sea basin. The land divided and the sea united, as it was to do for thousands of years.

From c. 4000 BC, hunter-gatherers became more or less permanently settled farmers who cultivated crops, domesticated animals, developed new technologies (including pottery), and left evidence of sophisticated communal cultures and belief systems. This Neolithic age (up to c. 2500 BC) overlapped with the Mesolithic and for thousands of years, thanks partly to the abundance of resources, people adapted more or less peacefully to migrations and to changes in climate and technologies and the lifestyles they brought.

Dark Age Scotland may not have been as poor as it later became. Treasure troves found by archaeologists, and the fact that both southern kings and Scandinavians thought it worth plundering, suggest otherwise. The same is true of the late Middle Ages and, except when decimated by disease or warfare (as in the early 14th century), population remained steady until demographic increase and bad weather created widespread famines in the late 16th and 17th centuries. Pre-modern economies were just as fragile as modern capitalism. The 1640s and 1650s were economically disastrous for Scotland as war disrupted trade, bad harvests created misery, and plague purged populations. Black-market lenders charged interest rates of 15–20% unprecedented until the 1970s. The late 1690s saw starvation, population displacement, and mortality from disease.

Roman Scotland

The knock-on effect in Scotland of the centuries of Roman occupation in southern Britain was considerable, but the actual Roman presence in the north was fleeting. The first incursion came in the summer of AD 79 when the Roman governor Agricola led his army deep into Caledonia. The campaign which followed was recorded by his son-in-law, the historian Tacitus, and culminated in Roman victory at the battle of Mons Graupius in AD 83. Roman priorities, however, lay elsewhere, and Agricolan ambitions to bring all of Britain within the Empire were abandoned. A frontier was established much further south with the building of Hadrian’s Wall on the Tyne–Solway line in the 120s and 130s. In the middle of the second century southern Scotland was brought within the Roman province of Britannia when a second wall, of more modest construction, was built on the Forth–Clyde line, c.143. But this Antonine reoccupation lasted little more than a decade and the northern wall was abandoned in the mid-160s. A punitive campaign against the northern barbarians was waged by the Emperor Severus from 197, but his death at York in 211 brought the initiative to an end and Roman troops drew back to the Wall.

In the extreme south-west of Scotland, around the western terminus of Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman presence was strong because of the legionary fortress of Carlisle, and more or less continuous until the mid-fourth century. Further north, military intervention was limited to these few discrete episodes, all of them short. In attempting to assess the impact of all this on native society it is easy to be misled by the impressive physical remains of the military majesty of the Empire: the enormousness of Hadrian’s Wall itself, the monumental carved distance slabs from the Antonine Wall, the remains of the huge legionary fortress at Ardoch, Perthshire, the dazzling parade armour found at Newsteads in the Tweed Valley. Much harder to see is the kind of effect prolonged proximity to the Empire had on the society of northern Britain. It would be a mistake to assume constant local hostility to the ‘imperial oppressor’ for, in reality, the Empire held many attractions. The dichotomy was not so much between ‘Roman’ and ‘Native’, as between those inside and those outside the Empire. Recruits to the Roman army were drawn from all over the Empire including, after the initial period, Britain: a grave slab from Mumrills, on the Antonine Wall, commemorates a Briton, Nectouelius, serving in the Roman army in Scotland. From the very outset it is clear that some outsiders saw the Empire as something which they could exploit to their own advantage. One such was Lossio Ueda who proudly proclaimed himself ‘a Caledonian’ on an impressive Roman-style votive inscription at early third-century Colchester, Essex.

The impact of Rome on those who stayed behind in the north varied greatly according to region. Archaeologists perceive a cultural boundary at the Tay, 100 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall. There is no doubt that Roman influence on the ‘near zone’ of southern Scotland was profound. The presence there of low-value Roman items reflects the functioning in this frontier area of a limited monetary economy, of markets and of merchants. In the unconquered ‘far zone’, north of the Tay, it is trinkets and a few luxury items which are found circulating amongst the elite, as far as Shetland and the Outer Isles. Prestige goods are found in the south too: the great early fifth-century hoard from Traprain Law, East Lothain, alone contains more than 50 lb of silver (it has been suggested, only half in jest, that Rome’s biggest contribution to Scotland consisted of silver plate!). Differential access to the great wealth and prestige of Rome had a disruptive effect on local politics. Those who failed to take advantage of these new resources to express and enforce their social position might find themselves squeezed out by more favoured rivals. A similar pattern of political and social destablization can be seen all round the rim of the Empire especially after imperial power began to collapse in the generation before c.400. The complete lack of Roman pottery in the ‘Inter-Wall’ region from the second half of the fourth century suggests that trade had effectively ceased there by then. This decline in the ready supply of Roman goods may help explain the references in fourth-century Roman sources to devastating seaborne raids from beyond the Walls. The concerted attacks of the 360s were particularly intense and involved not only Picti and Scotti but also Saxons from across the North Sea.

Irish Rural Settlements

The present consensus of academic opinion is still that Ireland was predominantly a rural society in pre-Norman times and that the patterns of settlement were dispersed, i.e. settlements were located out of earshot of each other. The commonest settlement type was the ringfort, which is also generally known by two Irish terms, rath (earthen fort) and cashel (stone fort or enclosure), which is most commonly found in the west where stone is more easily available as a building material. At its simplest it has been defined by Ó Ríordáin as ‘a space most frequently circular surrounded by a bank and fosse’. However, this simple definition does not encompass the large diversity of such sites, ranging from the largest tri-vallate examples with strong banks and fosses to small simple features with insignificant banks and ditches. Their ground plans also vary, sometimes quite markedly, from the ubiquitous circle and occasionally two or more examples are to be found located close to each other. They make up the most widespread type of relict earthwork to be found on the Irish landscape, with estimates of between 30,000 and 50,000 surviving in the first edition of the Ordnance Survey 6-inch maps of the 1840s. Thus it is interesting to speculate as to how many were still surviving in the landscape when the Anglo-Normans landed in Ireland at the end of the twelfth century.

Despite recent researches on this important settlement type by historical geographers such as G.F.Barrett, and by medieval archaeologists such as M.J.O’Kelly and C.J.Lynn there still remains much to be elicited about its chronology and function. With the general lack of information about ringforts in the surviving written sources of the period, which are mainly literary, or law tracts or annalistic writings, archaeological investigation assumes a primary importance. Although the totality of excavations number fewer than 120 sites, a small statistical sample, their random distribution would indicate that we do now possess a typical picture of their chronology and function. However, the archaeological evidence produced by many of these sites has often been either non-existent or undateable. Nevertheless, of the sites which have produced useful data, it would appear that ringforts can be broadly dated to the first millennium AD, and often functioned as defended farmsteads of one family grouping. Some others, such as Garryduff in Co. Cork, functioned as metalworking centres whilst other smaller examples served as pens to protect cattle, valuable assets in pre-Norman Irish society.

It is also difficult to know, given the small sample of excavated sites, how many ringforts of the national total were occupied simultaneously. This together with our lack of knowledge of the size of the population at the time means that it is only possible to guess whether or not the entire population was living in these defended farmsteads or whether there was another complementary nucleated settlement form, the existence of which is hinted at in the surviving law tracts. But before the problem of undefended settlements in pre-Norman Ireland is examined it is necessary to review some of the major conclusions on the nature and chronology of the ringfort produced by archaeological methods of enquiry.

The areal size of ringforts has been measured in some parts of the country as a result of various surveys, such as those for Counties Donegal, Down, Louth, Meath and Monaghan, the barony survey of Ikerrin in Co. Tipperary and Corca Duibhne (Dingle peninsula) in Co. Kerry, and Barrett’s specialized surveys of ringforts in the Dingle peninsula of Co. Kerry and part of south Co. Donegal. They have all shown that ringforts broadly vary in size from around 15 m in diameter to a few which are as large as 80 m. However, the median diameter would be somewhere around 30 m. Inside these fosses and banks archaeologists have found evidence for mixed farming but often with the emphasis on cattle rearing. At other sites there has been evidence of industrial activity, especially ironworking, as well as spinning and weaving. And at some of the larger ringforts there has been evidence of specialization in metalworking as well as glass production.

A more detailed analysis of their chronology reveals that the majority of excavated sites were occupied in the last half of this first millennium AD, i.e. from around AD 500 to 1000. However, both the origins and the final phase of ringfort construction have been the subjects of much academic debate which is still not resolved satisfactorily. It has been put forward by O’Kelly that their origins can be found in the Bronze Age and that they were an important feature of the Early Iron Age. But, there is evidence of occupation and, less certainly, the logical possibility that some were constructed after 1169. Barrett and Graham first put forward the above hypothesis based mainly upon their study of the 1840s distribution of this settlement type, especially in the Pale areas of Counties Louth and Meath. They found that the known distribution of ringforts was much denser in those regions which were west and north of the probable line of the Pale boundary, and they sought to try and explain this either by the removal of ringforts as a concomitant to the more intensive agriculture introduced by the Anglo-Normans in the areas under their control or, more controversially, through the continued construction of such settlement forms in medieval times in areas on the periphery of dense Anglo-Norman settlement. Incidentally, the areas of lower densities of ringforts also correspond fairly closely with concentrations of the place-name element ‘town’ which, according to T. Jones-Hughes, indicates regions which experienced ‘the most durable impact of Anglo-Norman colonisation and settlement’.

Archaeologists uncover Britain's oldest house

By David Stringer 
Archaeologists have discovered what they say is Britain's oldest house, a circular shaped home built in about 8,500 B.C. next to an ancient lake at Star Carr, near Scarborough, in northeastern England. The house is about 500 to 1,000 years older than a building in Howick, northern England, previously thought to have been the country's oldest home.

Archaeologists have uncovered the site of Britain's oldest house, the waterside home of nomad hunters dating back about 11,000 years.

The dwelling, which has lake views, a thatched roof and very original features, predates the country's famous Stonehenge monument by around 6,000 years and was built at a time when Britain was still connected to continental Europe.

Teams from the University of York and the University of Manchester working at the site believe the circular shaped home was built in about 8,500 B.C. next to an ancient lake at Star Carr, near Scarborough, in northeastern England.

"This is a sensational discovery and tells us so much about the people who lived at this time," Nicky Milner from the University of York said Wednesday. "From this excavation, we gain a vivid picture of how these people lived."

Discoveries made at the site suggest the house was about 3.5 meters wide (11 feet, 6 inches), constructed of timber posts and likely had a roof of thatched reeds. The site was probably inhabited for between 200 and 500 years, and there were possibly several homes built at the site.

Archaeologists have also uncovered a 11,000-year-old tree trunk, with its bark still intact, and found traces of a wooden jetty-like platform on the bank of the ancient lake that could be the first evidence of carpentry in Europe.

The house is about 500 to 1,000 years older than a building in Howick, northern England, previously thought to have been the country's oldest home.

"This changes our ideas of the lives of the first settlers to move back into Britain after the end of the last Ice Age. We used to think they moved around a lot and left little evidence. Now we know they built large structures and were very attached to particular places in the landscape," said Chantal Conneller, an archaeologist at the University of Manchester.

Artifacts found at the site -- which include part of an oar, arrow tips and deer skulls -- offer clues to the lives of the settlers. It's thought they kept domestic dogs, hunted deer, wild boar and elk, fished on the lake and had rituals that involved the use of headdresses fashioned from animal skulls.

Science minister David Willetts said the building was an important discovery.

"It brings out the similarities and differences between modern life and the ancient past in a fascinating way, and will change our perceptions forever," he said.

The Star Carr site, which dates back to 9,000 B.C., was first discovered in 1947. Archaeologists began work to uncover the house about two years ago.

American Journal of Archaeology Online Reviews (July 2010)

Friday, August 6, 2010


Online Book Reviews

Beginning in January 2010 (issue 114.1), all book reviews are published here as free downloadable PDFs. While we no longer publish book reviews in our printed fascicle (except for the occasional book review article), all are still listed in the respective print publication's table of contents.

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