Tuesday, December 16, 2014


The Brough of Birsay, a tidal island, is one of the bestknown archaeological sites in Orkney, projecting out into the Atlantic at the northwest corner of Birsay Bay and separated by the 238-m-wide Brough Sound from the Point of Buckquoy. Its name derives from Old Norse borg (fortress or stronghold), which can refer to either a broch (a fortified dwelling), or, as is more likely in this case, the natural defensive qualities of an island difficult of access.

The earliest archaeological work on this site appears to have been by Sir Henry Dryden in 1870, who cleared out the chapel. The site came into the care of the secretary of state for Scotland in 1934, and considerable clearance and excavation took place to prepare the site for the general public. This work was curtailed with the outbreak of World War II, but the finds from the excavations have been published by C. L. Curle, along with the finds from the later campaigns of C. A. R. Radford and S. H. Cruden in the 1950s and 1960s. Interim accounts of aspects of the later work have been published. Earlier structural elements uncovered below the chapel have generally been associated with the pre-Norse church. However, these earlier structural elements no longer need to be associated with the so-called Celtic church but, by analogy with the Brough of Deerness and Brattahlid in Greenland, may be dated to the Norse period. 

Work was resumed on a small scale in 1973; in the area to the east of the chapel, Room 5 was excavated. Essentially, four major periods were distinguished. From analysis of the associated finds, together with some radiocarbon C-14 (ninth century or later) dating, the first may be assigned to the pre-Norse (Pictish) phase (pre-800) and the later three to the Norse. Only the last phase relates to the laid-out, standing building. Following this work, a renewed large-scale series of excavations was begun by J. R. Hunter and C. D. Morris in 1974 and continued until 1982. There is now clear evidence from the Brough of Birsay for many buildings (far more, across a wider area, than originally envisaged) dating to the Norse and Pictish periods. There is also clear evidence here for multiphase activity, with the replacement of buildings and often their complete reorientation in relation to the local topography. 

There has been much discussion of the significance of the entries in the Orkneyinga Saga concerning the "minster dedicated to Christ" at Birsay established by Earl Thorfinn the Mighty. Both Radford and Cruden take the view that the buildings mentioned in the Saga can be identified with structures excavated on the brough. Others (e. g., the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland; R. G. Lamb) see these structures as twelfth century (rather than eleventh) and monastic in character and favor a location for the "minster" in the village area. In 1982, excavations took place under the direction of Barber in advance of restoration of the parish church of St. Magnus. Structural elements uncovered below the present church have been accorded a probable twelfth-century date, and it is suggested that the present building was preceded by a pre- Reformation church of some sophistication. However, the dating accorded to the remains does not enable firm associations with the historical data, and so it cannot yet be claimed that the "minster" was originally located in the village. 

Norse Christianity clearly focused upon Birsay, but once the cathedral was built in Kirkwall, the focus of secular and ecclesiastical power shifted away. Little is known of events here between the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries. However, by the sixteenth century, much of Birsay had been transferred from the hands of the earl of Orkney to the bishops of Orkney, and in that century it is clear that the bishops used a palace hereabouts. In the sixteenth century, an otherwise unknown writer, "Jo Ben," described Birsay as having "an excellent palace"; according to local tradition, the presence of walls and other features in the area to the south of the parish church may relate to this palace. 

The significance of Birsay in the sixteenth century is reinforced by the building of an imposing Earl's Palace to the north of the Burn of Boardhouse. This was constructed with ranges of buildings around a courtyard with projecting rectangular towers at three corners, perhaps dated to 1574. It is probable that, in the construction of the Earl's Palace, stones from the older Bishop's Palace were reused. However, the regained significance of Birsay was short lived, and P. D. Anderson (1983) has suggested that deterioration of the Earl's Palace is recorded from as early as 1653. The gaunt ruins of the palace are perhaps visible reminders of what has been described as the "dark period" of Orkney's history under the Stewart earls. 

There are clear indications that buildings from the Viking and late Norse periods remain to be discovered in the area to the south of the village. The place-name Tuftaback, bank or slope of house sites, might well be equated with the area to the south of the Burn of Boardhouse. Here, buildings and middens of some complexity have been uncovered on top of a mound site composed of archaeological deposits presumably going back into prehistory. A second such mound site almost certainly exists below an adjacent modern building and extends down to the riverbank. 

Beyond the village to the south are the Links, at the southern end of which is Saevar Howe, another multiperiod mound site, which was examined in the nineteenth century by Farrer and more recently by J. W. Hedges. Pictish buildings here were apparently built on top of a prehistoric site and were themselves superseded by Viking Age dwellings. On top of these were the remains of a Christian Norse cemetery-although not recognized as such in the nineteenth century. 

Cemeteries from both the Roman Iron Age/Pictish and the Viking periods have also been recognized from the area between the village and the brough to the north. The earlier burials are marked by cist graves below mounds of sand and stone cairns, without accompanying grave goods. The later burials were either in cists or simply dug into the contemporary ground surface, but they were accompanied by grave goods recognizably Viking in form and date. 

Radiocarbon determinations have confirmed these chronological attributions. Even earlier, the area was clearly of significance in the earlier Iron Age (structural evidence) and the Bronze Age (midden deposits). Fragmentary traces of settlement remains of the Viking period have also been excavated in this area, with accompanying rich midden deposits, and a characteristic figure-eight-shaped dwelling from the late Pictish period. This series of excavations directed by Morris between the village and the brough has received full publication. Of particular interest and significance was the nearby site at Buckquoy excavated by A. Ritchie. Here, a Pictish farmstead was uncovered, of two major periods, succeeded by a Norse farmstead. It has also been suggested that the evidence points to some degree of coexistence by the two groups. 

Extensive archaeological research supports the conclusion, derived from written sources, that Birsay was a center of political and ecclesiastical power during the Viking and late Norse periods. In addition, there is also evidence to support Birsay's importance in the preceding Pictish period, together with its imperfectly understood role in prehistoric Orkney.

World’s Oldest Port

Evidence of Egypt's earliest port (above) and its oldest papyrus (top) were found close to the Red Sea.

Wadi el-Jarf, Egypt

Examples of the Importance of Experimental Archaeology

A well-published experiment, in such a way that many people could share in the knowledge and insights learnt from this activity, was the building of a Stone Age house in Denmark in 1958 by Hans-Ole Hansen. He describes the successes and setbacks in an accessible, lively manner. Such activities, based on trial and error, cannot follow a planned script, because many details are unknown from the drawing table. They are more about gaining experiences and counting how much material and how much time goes where (the way `we' build it). The fact is, 50 years later, we still meet surprises each time we build a `prehistoric' house somewhere; surprises that mean we need to improvise and solve problems on the spot. For example, one needs to have tried cutting trees with both a stone axe and a steel axe before you can compare them in usability. It takes some experience in using both kinds, as they need to be handled differently.

Overview over the Iron Age village at Lejre Experimental Centre, Denmark. Picture: Roeland Paardekooper.

Building an Iron Age house in the present day might say little about how it was to build such a house over 2000 years ago, but it is up to experimental archaeologists to find out what we actually can learn from it. By dismissing the human element and measuring the time it costs for someone to reach a goal does not mean that registering time is useless. Some processes have always led to the same results, both in the past and in the present. That is why it is good to measure how much time it takes, for example, for ceramics to be baked at a certain temperature, within the context of the variables, such as the kind of clay and the kind of kiln. 

In the 1950s, knowledge of how to smelt iron without using a modern blast furnace had almost vanished in Europe, although hundreds of archaeological sites were already identified as iron-smelting sites. Without exact knowledge, the evidence of the different stages would be impossible to compare and to discern. In the past 60 years, ethnoarchaeological reports from Africa and Asia have found their way to many people interested and, combined with the archaeological data sets, literally thousands of experiments with shaft furnaces and other prehistoric and early historic types were executed across the world. Especially in the United States, groups of archaeologists/craftspeople are very active in iron smelting. One of the advantages of iron smelting is that it was executed in many regions across the world which makes it easier for people to become familiar with it in their local environment. More clearly, these experiments and the vast amount of reports of them have made it possible for archaeologists to discern the different steps, methods, and their by-products. 

In 1967, a construction built in Lejre (Denmark) resembling an Iron Age house was deliberately set on fire and excavated later. Such experiments take time, courage, and a stable physical environment. 

The scene for the fire was planned in detail, with inventory and stock put in place where needed. Small porcelain cones were mounted across the house as part of the registration of temperature. Surprisingly for the experimenters, the house burnt down in as little as 30 min. A few days after the fire, small test pits were excavated. In this excavation, different layers of ash were discernible as well as different sources of clay and loam (walls, floor, etc.). 

These different features were much more difficult to recognize in the 1992 excavations. The people excavating in the second phase were unaware of the documentation of the fire in 1967, just like archaeologists nowadays excavate houses without knowledge of what exactly they will find until they do make finds. To everybody's surprise, they made only very little finds, even if the house was only burnt down 25 years before. After the 1992 excavations, the undisturbed parts are left for the future.

The pity of this famous experiment is that there has been no money available to date to process the complete documentation of the constructing phase, the phase of use of the house, the burning down, and subsequently the excavation. Even if this could be done, the work comparing the data with original archaeological information on burnt-down houses has to be started first of all. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, different wooden ships were built in Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, resembling a medieval cog-like vessel. This kind of ship was used in the late Middle Ages in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea as trading vessel. As is often the case, money was acquired through European unemployment funds. The building of such new ships of old design has an important added value, namely promoting interest in the past, and therefore strengthening the position of archaeology. 

The different cog-like vessels built in the 1980s and 1990s served different levels of authenticity and different goals. Most important, the ships were meant to be used as seafaring vessels in modern ages. 

A major advantage of having these new ships built is that the original archaeological data receives renewed attention, not just from archaeologists, but from a range of other specialists as well, who all `see' things in the original data, which archaeologists did not identify before. Archaeologists do learn to see beyond what they know, but these insights might be limited. 

In some cases, archaeological details were copied into a ship, and people first found out about their use after sailing with the ship. This is the case, for example, for a triangular piece of wood, which decenniums after the excavations had to be planned in the correct location, which could be recognized in medieval depictions as well. It turned out to be a so-called beam-end fender.

The location of the beam-end fender in front of a through-beam on the outer side of the hull. Drawing by Morten Gᴓthche, Maritime Newsletter from Roskilde, Denmark, no. 7, December 1996, p. 15.
The beam-end fenders can be seen clearly on this town seal from Elbing c. 1350. From Maritime Newsletter from Roskilde, Denmark, no. 7, December 1996, p. 15.

Experiments in using such a ship are often restricted to short-term monitoring experiments (``does it work well?''). Longer-term monitoring, using log books and comparing these over the years, would be a cost-effective way of learning more. The different ship projects are in touch with each other and exchange experiences. If the results and experiences with such ships were to be combined, an interesting image would emerge.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Case-Study - Seasonal Mobility in the Auvergne

The magnitude of raw material transfers between the Auvergne sites and sources 250-300km further north illustrates a case of continuity in mobility patterns across the Middle/Upper Palaeolithic divide, which is consistent with the cultural ecological paradigm. Considered in a techno-economic perspective, these transfers also reinforce previously stated diachronic differences.

A hilly relief and a globally rough climate characterize the Auvergne, in the central part of France. During colder periods, local glaciers covered the higher altitude zones that border the Loire and Allier valleys, along which there are clusters of sites, both Middle Palaeolithic and Upper Palaeolithic (Gravettian, Protomagdalenian, mostly Badegoulian and Magdalenian). All of the Upper and some of the Middle Palaeolithic sites contain northern flint from the Touraine and the Paris Basin, the former sites in large quantities. In this respect, it is significant that flint is scarce and generally of poor quality in the Auvergne. 

The Auvergne is considered to have been a region of severe seasonal contrasts throughout the Upper Palaeolithic, particularly inhospitable during the winter months. The absence of any winter hunting in the sites further suggests that human occupation was seasonal in the area. Working on this assumption, it is contemplated that in the Upper Palaeolithic the procurement of higher-quality northern flint was embedded in subsistence strategies and occurred in the context of planned seasonal moves. These followed natural routes connecting flint yielding regions and others known to be lacking suitable raw materials.

Northward long-distance winter moves from the Auvergne (France), following natural routes leading to areas yielding highquality flints. Both Middle and Upper Palaeolithic sites contain Touraine and Paris Basin flints, but the procurement of large quantities of such flints is only documented for the Upper Palaeolithic. Figure composed by G. Monthel (UMR 7055 du CNRS).

Long-distance seasonal mobility (ranging between 160 and at least 250km in the Upper Palaeolithic) is a pattern argued to obtain in ECE. Explaining the Auvergne long-distance seasonal moves in terms of adaptive responses to environmental constraints is supported by the enduring northern origin of raw materials across the Middle/Upper Palaeolithic divide. However, the quantities recorded for the Middle Palaeolithic are very small. A similar case of continuity in transport and mobility strategies is documented only in ECE, in Moravia, where northern trans-Carpathian flint systematically occurs in Middle and Upper Palaeolithic sites, conveyed along natural routes (the Moravian Gate). As in the Auvergne only poor quality flint is available in Moravia, and it is also only during the Upper Palaeolithic that trans-Carpathian transfers are associated with large quantities of raw materials, rather than with a few end-products. Indirect Procurement Drawing on ethnographic parallels concerning the exchange of highly valued items by down-the-line trade over extreme distances, special attention has been paid to the longest transfers (300 km) acknowledged in WE, WCE, and ECE. These always involve very small quantities (generally a single item) of end-products, often in remarkable materials, such as obsidian or white-spotted Świeciechów flint in ECE, which account for half these transfers and may have been invested with more than utilitarian properties. 

Eastern Central Europe
In ECE, such very long transfers are recorded throughout the Upper Palaeolithic, beginning with the Szeletian and the Aurignacian, which partly overlap in time. It is argued that three of the four 300 km Szeletian transfers may result from a down-the-line mode of exchange.

Indirect procurement by down-the-line trade through social exchange in the Szeletian and the Aurignacian of ECE (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic). Figure composed by G. Monthel (UMR 7055 du CNRS).

Items made of eastern materials from the Tokay and Bükk regions (obsidian and felsitic quartz porphyry, 360 and 340 km) are recorded west in Moravia, at Neslovice. Obsidian and felsitic quartz porphyry are abundant in all the Bükk area sites. Felsitic quartz porphyry is also documented at a halfway point in some Váh valley sites, construed as `relay' sites. In addition, the presence of the characteristic raw material of this valley, radiolarite, is recorded in both eastern (Bükk) and western (Moravia) sites. In a similar way, the Świeciechów flint item from northeastern Poland found in Moravia, at Mis¡kovice (360km), alongside with Kraków Jurassic flint, is argued to have been conveyed through the Kraków region sites, where Świeciechów flint items are recorded, as well as items in `chocolate' flint, of similar northern origin. In the Aurignacian, indirect procurement can be contemplated for two of the four 300 km transfers. One is associated with the presence of Świeciechów flint in Moravia, at Urc¡ice-Golštýn (380 km), where Kraków Jurassic flint is also recorded. There again, the Kraków sites, which yield some Świeciechów flint (three items at Kraków-Sowiniec), can be interpreted as `relay' sites. Another transfer is associated with the presence of 10 obsidian items at Nová Ddina I in Moravia (320 km), alongside with radiolarite, and these were possibly conveyed through the Váh valley sites. 

Western Central Europe
In WCE, only one 300km transfer is recorded, in connection with Hohlenstein- Stadel, an Aurignacian site of the Swabian Jura. It is associated with a few end products in Baltic flint from northern Rhineland (400 km). While in the Swabian Jura, all other long-distance transfers are throughout the Upper Palaeolithic oriented eastwards (240 km) and westwards (220 km) along the Danube River, suggesting direct procurement of materials during (seasonal?) group movement, this transfer is oriented north-south. Small quantities of Baltic flint have been found at the Aurignacian site of Wildscheuer in the Rhineland, some 140km distant from the closest source, and the assumption is that down-the-line trade to southwestern Germany conveyed the items recovered at Hohlenstein-Stadel. 

Western Europe
In WE, basically as a reflection of the state of current research, 300km transfers are so far only acknowledged for the French Aurignacian (n = 2 occurrences). These transfers relate to one item each of grain de mil flint conveyed from western Charente to the Ariège (at Tuto de Camalhot) and the Hérault (Régismont-le-Haut). 

Indirect procurement by down-the-line trade through social exchange in the Aurignacian of WE (southern France). Figure composed by G. Monthel (UMR 7055 du CNRS).

Grain de mil flint also occurs at several of the Vézère valley sites in the Périgord, and two types of northern Aquitaine flints (Bergeracois and Fumel) have been identified at the Tuto de Camalhot and Régismontle- Haut. Indirect procurement by down-the-line trade via Périgord `relay' sites is therefore suggested for the 300km grain de mil transfers. In this respect, it is of additional interest that shells of Atlantic coastal species occur both at Périgord sites and at the Tuto de Camalhot. 

It does not necessarily ensue from the above examples that direct procurement is the only underlying mechanism for transfers.