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Friday, 6 January 2017

More Orcadian fantasies from the BBC



I suppose many will have seen the latest offering from the BBC on the Orkney Islands archaeological discoveries -- some of which are newish, and some which are certainly not.  Let's forgive the naffness of having a chap climbing up a sea stack (at considerable effort and expense) just in order to tell us that there are bedded sedimentary rocks on Orkney ---- and forgive the pretence that everything in the programme is cutting-edge science.  And let's forget a huge amount of padding, with most points being made in a very laboured fashion.  It was pleasant enough viewing for a winters evening.

Did it tell us anything exciting?  Not really -- although some of the photography of Maes Howe and Skara Brae was great.

What had me sighing into my coffee cup was the apparent determination by the BBC and our old friend Neil Oliver to dumb everything down to the point where there is no scrutiny whatsoever of "ground-breaking" and exciting new discoveries which apparently revolutionise our knowledge of Neolithic Britain -- when actually they do nothing of the sort.

Yet again we see the obsession with quarrying and stone haulage, even to the extent of mounting experiments at splitting a slab of rock from a flat quarry floor with the aid of wedges, hammers and levers, and trying to haul a slab of stone on rollers (nice modern ones, machined and pressure treated, with nice modern ropes to match) or on a bed of seaweed.  Some stones came from 7 miles away, we were told.  Wow!  Neil told us that the stones at the Ness, and the Stones of Stenness and at the Ring of Brodgar, Maes Howe etc, had been quarried from different places and brought to those sites in symbolic acts of cooperation and togetherness by the ancient inhabitants.  So they were highly skilled and highly motivated.  Assumptions piled upon assumptions, and no scrutiny of ideas.

Just type in "Brodgar" in our search box, and you will see some of our previous posts.  But it's pretty depressing that the programme makers seemed blissfully unaware of things like glacial transport, erratics and stone provenancing -- if the evidence has been there for us to scrutinise on this blog, it's there for TV programme makers as well.

The general shallowness of the treatment was typified in the sequence from Skara Brae, where MPP claimed that the "beds" and "cupboards" made of stone in that famous place were copied and then mimicked in wood later on in the vicinity of Stonehenge -- thereby demonstrating cultural diffusion from a great ritual or political centre southwards across the rest of the British Isles.  The diffusion argument is unsupportable -- did early Neolithic and even Mesolithic people not have beds and cupboards in their huts?  Of course they did -- and they did not need a "model" imported from Orkney to show them how they should look.  A bed needs to be a bit wider and a bit longer than the person wanting to sleep in it, and it needs to have sides so that you can make it nice and cosy. A cupboard needs to have flat surfaces inside it, and it needs to be off the ground so that you can keep things out of the way of dogs and small children.  If the idea of beds and cupboards started anywhere (rather than everywhere), it could have spread northwards to Orkney and southwards to Stonehenge -- or in any other compass directions.

And as for Skara Brae being the great ritual centre from which Neolithic culture flowed as from 5500 yrs BP, there was much fantasising but no evidence whatsoever.  The assumption that something is hugely important just because it is being excavated by archaeologists is nonsensical -- we have discussed exactly the same issue with respect to Rhosyfelin.  Investing places like these with significance is completely unscientific, when your sampling programme is completely skewed.  We really have no idea what hugely important other sites are still out there, waiting to be discovered.  I wouldn't mind betting that other sites will be discovered, somewhere down the line,  which show that the Ness of Brodgar was an evolution, or a piece of mimicry, derived from something else even older, on the Scottish mainland, or even further afield.

Come on, BBC -- must try harder.


17 comments:

TonyH said...

Havers, mon, I enjoyed it on a cold bright moonlight nicht. And it all helps to transfer Stonehenge tourist monies northwards almost to the ends of the earth, no?

JOHN LAWRIE (remember me in pre - war films as well as Dad's Army?)

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, it was all very chummy and jolly. But what gets me over and again is the sheer shallowness of these BBC progs -- great deference shown to "experts" and zero critical analysis of the things they are saying. It's almost as if they are all scared to death of uncertainty and disagreement within peer groups -- in spite of the fact that it happens all the time.

Dave Maynard said...

I found it very long and tedious, with all the points being very laboured. Needed some heavy editing.

On the other hand, I'm all for going up there to look at all the fascinating sites instead of spending my gold on repeated visits to the SH area. we'll have to work a lot harder to get the SH tourist monies to be spent in the west.

Dave

chris johnson said...

I missed the programme.

Has Oliver had a haircut yet. He needs one.

By the sounds of it I did not miss much. Some "colleagues" of mine went to Orkney last year and had a fantastic visit with hospitality from the local archaeologists and plenty of scope for exchanging views. Shame the BBC did not send a tv person with them; I suspect it would have been a lot more informative and cheaper.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Saw the second episode last night -- nice easy viewing, with a huge amount of padding. It would have been far better if it had been compressed into 30 mins. The sequences about the making of the sticks and skin boat were fun, but the lack of critical thinking was again a great irritant! I am still not in the least convinced that Orkney was the great centre from which all sorts of wondrous Neolithic influences flowed.......

Myris of Alexandria said...

No, I am certain that you are not but is your opinion, on this, of any help or value?

However, for over 50 years (during the "Secondary Neolithic" Rinyo-Clactonian Ware times the spread of the Grooved Ware package (aka R-C ware) from Orcadia southwards has been known and dated. I was being taught this EXACTLY 50 years ago this month at M/c in a course entitled "NW European Prehistory" (that had bugger-all European in it until the IA and lots and lots and lots of socketed bronze axe typology.

The dates of the first use of this package become younger as one travels southward from the islands to the seaside resorts of Sussex.

You are ever straying from what you know to what you opine. Check it.
M

The con of the programmes is to suggest all this is new and revolutionary. The recent Orcadian work 'just' adds greater and welcome flesh to what is accepted.

The wellspring is the Great Northern Circles book; it has dominated popular Neolithic discussions for the last four/five years. Did you read it as suggested?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Ah -- now that sort of info is interesting, Myris. It's no big deal as far as I am concerned -- I care not a jot whether Neolithic culture spread from the far north to the far south, or the other way round, or whether pottery spread in one direction and the style of beds spread in the opposite one. What I have always done, and what I will continue to do, is apply scrutiny, and retain a healthy scepticism for everything I am told by the "experts" -- until they come up with something that qualifies as being strong evidence. I have not seen any strong evidence for Orkney being a gigantic hub of civilization in the 2 programmes so far.......

TonyH said...

Quite surprising that someone with strong familial and holidaying (including e.g. Kayaking) Scandinavian connections cannot show more curiosity in things that may - or may not - have occurred not that far adrift westwards, in Prehistoric Orkney. And he's Geographer to boot! (there's a double entendre that I just chuck in for others to consider!). Just a bit surprised Brian hasn't mused on any possible parallels with Scandinavian Prehistory.....but then, perhaps he "cares not a jot" about any parallels betwixt Scandinavia and Orkney, preferring instead to remain within his Pembrokeshire boundaries, with their own Scandinavian connections, albeit Viking, e.g. FishGUARD, SKOMER AND SKOKHOLM (with Lundy not too far away).

BRIAN JOHN said...

Oh, I do care very deeply about this and all sorts of other things, Tony. It's just that I am entirely neutral as to what I would prefer the truth to be -- stuff and ideas moving north to south, or south to north. It's all entirely fascinating.

TonyH said...

Part One of the TV Series told us that prehistoric voles of Orkney shared the same DNA as prehistoric voles from Belgium, so "must" (or may?) have been aboard some vessels travelling broadly south - north.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, they argued for trading vessels going all the way up the coast from Belgium to Orkney, with no opportunities for the voles to hop off at intermediate stopping places...... Hmmm.....

That sounds like northwards diffusion, and not southwards.....

chris johnson said...

I read an analysis of neolithic red deer remains on the islands. Apparently they did NOT come from the close mainland - a European origin is suspected. As this work continues I expect we might learn a lot about migrations - voles too, it seems.

My theory is that the megalithic culture moved north from Brittany as the pressure of migration from the East increased, along the western coastlines. The belief in the North as a spiritual destination seems to be quite ancient and reflected in Egyptian beliefs, amongst others. In this sense it is just about credible that the hard core ended up in Orkney - it must have seemed like the end of the world in 4th millennium BC.

The similarity of the dolmens in Wales and Ireland to those in Brittany seems to be out of fashion in modern day archaeology.

TonyH said...

Myris is very insistent that the "Great Northern Circles" book is essential reading when considering Orkney, the other Northern Islands and beyond. I THINK the only copy available in the fast - disappearing public library network of Ancient Wiltshire is the one residing in the so - called Wiltshire History Centre, which is also where all the County's local government archaeologists are based. Perhaps I'll try and prise it out of there, perhaps with the help of one of those lifting apparatuses [?apparati?] beloved by modern - day antiquaries MPP and Josh Pollard whilst dismantling the Rhosyfelin geomorphic landscape feature.

TonyH said...

Very good review of this "Building the Great Northern Circles of the North" , which states that one of its key findings is that of being an understanding of the regional histories of (and relationships between) Orkney and the Western Islands in the early Neolithic, may be found in:-

www.prehistoricsociety.org/files/reviews/Stone_Circles_Jones_review_final2.pdf

The review is by a rather Welsh - sounding Doctor Meirion Jones of the University of Southampton

TonyH said...

Full name is Dr Andrew Meirion Jones.

chris johnson said...

Post from John Wood elsewhere today.

"watched the third episode of this rather peculiar series the other night. Very bitty, disjointed and pretty well inconclusive.
For those who missed it, or those who live in distant lands, it had an unusual format akin to a combination of 'Time Team' and the 'Pirates of the Caribbean'.
Lots of loosely related reports on the archaeology, dabbling in experimentation, whilst sailing around the islands commandeering other people's excavations.
And the presenters wouldn't have looked out of place on the Black Pearl either.
It is a pity they hadn't dragged along a landscape archaeologist, a geomorphologist or perhaps a geologist, as they completely ignored the glacial landscape which might have helped answer some pretty fundamental questions.
Other than that it was an entertaining romp around the prehistory of these northern isles, whilst Neil Oliver attempted to fit the facts to his underlying theories."

Hope John doesn't mind me sharing it. I thought some of us will enjoy his remarks.

TonyH said...

www.scotsman.com/news/ancient-orkney-site-of-skara-brae-to-feature-on-new-stamp-1-4340976

Part of a series of Ancient Britain stamps issued during this current week.