You must remember this…

Two weeks (and a weekend) to go before we start digging again. In spite of my good intentions last week we haven’t got any further with the Fairy Holes interim report but I have spent a lot of time tool shopping on the internet. I’ve also been using the measure tool in QGIS to work out if we have enough electric fence wire to go around all the trenches (we don’t, of course). This sounds obscure enough to be the sort of thing you get asked to do in online tutorials when you are learning the program.

Also this week the most recent volume of the Journal of Social Archaeology came out. The last paper in this volume is by me and so for once, instead of talking about work in progress, I can discuss something that is actually finished. This paper is about our previous cave project at Goldsland Wood in South Wales. At two sites there, Wolf Cave and George Rock Shelter, there was lots of evidence for people having used the caves over a very long period of time.


This is a scatter plot showing the distribution of all the worked stone tools and waste from George Rock Shelter. The important thing here is that the stone tools at the bottom of the diagram were late Mesolithic (around 7000 years old) whereas the ones at the top were Late Neolithic (around 4500 years old). Here we have two similar spreads of flintwork, places where intact tools and waste have been placed in the shelter, separated by a very long period of time.


Everyone in this photo is kneeling about at the level of the later flint deposits. I find these very long timespans a bit puzzling when it comes to trying to understand how prehistoric sites were used. You could argue that the two episodes of activity are so far apart in time that it is purely a coincidence that they occur in the same place.


However, when you look at the other archaeological evidence, this is the distribution of human bone from the same site for example, then the gaps get filled in and we can see that the activity was more continuous.

My usual response to this sort of evidence has been to argue that this shows that a place, in this case George Rock Shelter, was significant or holy in prehistory, and was therefore remembered by the people who lived in that area and repeatedly visited. Which is fine as far as it goes, but is one of those archaeological arguments that explains everything and nothing at the same time. How do groups of people pass on memories exactly and particularly over such extremely long timespans? Why do they choose some monuments and natural places as significant and not others?

While we were working on the post-excavation for the Goldsland Caves I did a lot of reading around the idea of memory, and especially group memories, in archaeology and anthropology. In the paper that was published this week I suggested that the most important way that memories and sacred knowledge are passed on is through people performing rituals. I think that sites become sacred and to remain important  because the things people do there have six characteristics.

The first if these is that the activity is social, by which I just mean that  it involves more than one person, so there was a group to have the memory at all.The second characteristic is that some thing, place or person got changed. These changes are what the anthropologist Alfred Gell called indexes, perceptible and enduring signs that something has happened. The third characteristic is that what happened should in some sense have been a performance, this could cover anything from people performing a ritual to people performing a craft skill. The fourth point is that the people in the group and the objects and places involved will feed back to the person performing. The fifth characteristic is that these more or less public performances will get repeated at fixed points in the calender. The sixth thing is that all this stuff happens in the same place each time.

With all these in place, the repetition of actions, the visible changes to people, places and things and the drama of the performance, then the ritual and the place would become associated in local tradition and therefore get remembered. The important thing, I think, is that these performances can start out very small in scale and, provided they tick most of the boxes above, they will then still quickly build a group memory around a special place.

Mike 5
That is a very abstract summary of what I argued in the paper, and this is already a very long post, but I am going to squeeze in one example of the kind of thing I mean. Here we have a group of people, all performing the task of trowelling an archaeological surface. They are changing the soil in a perceptible way and they are getting feedback from the surface (it looks clean) and from Mike who is supervising them. Some of them are also learning to trowel: so they are not only creating a trowelled surface, but also the kind of body that knows how to trowel. Their memories of learning and doing this stuff will be associated with coming to this particular place at this time (the top of New Laund Hill in July). If we imagine what would happen if most of these people came back every July to dig the top of the hill we can quickly see how a great mass of stories,memories and performances would be associated with this particular bit of the hill. Actually we don’t really need to imagine, just to talk to anyone who has been involved in an enormous multi-season archaeological research project – Whithorn Priory excavations for example, where I spent a large part of my early 20s. At Goldsland in prehistory they were knapping flint rather than trowelling, but I think the principal was the same.

On a completely different note, and returning to the subject of children’s fiction that prepares people for a life in archaeology. I had got so fixated on 70s nostalgia that I completely forgot the fantastic vikings in Cressida Cowell’s How to Train your Dragon and many utterly bonkers sequels. Clearly the best introduction to the early medieval period you could ask for.



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