By Bernie Bell
I was having a conversation with a friend about how fleeting life, and our time here on this earth, can appear to be, and yet, how much can be seen of life from even the distant past and how, with modern techniques, more and more actual traces of people, plants, other organic matter – life – are being discovered and how specialist archaeologists are enabled to gain some reasonably accurate ideas about life, and even individuals, in the past, from these ‘traces’.
The Pictish Smith’s anvil discovered at the Swandro dig on Rousay, has the actual knee prints and hand prints of those who worked at this stone. The knee print will have been pressure from, presumably trouser covered, knees, but the hand prints, are the actual hand prints of an actual Pictish Smith, or Smiths. https://www.swandro.co.uk/dig-diary/dig-diary-monday-23rd-july-our-anvil-still-has-the-pictish-smith-s-hand-prints
Sometimes the traces are more tangible, sometimes they are truly just echoes or shadows of the past. But they are still there.
This discussion put me in mind of a talk which Antonia Thomas (UHI) had given a few years before, in which she spoke of the idea of, let’s call it reverse archaeology. The idea of de-construction rather than re-construction. Looking at how we use our living spaces, or sacred spaces, what traces that would leave, and what conclusions might be drawn from these traces if found in the far future. Also, the way we move around inside each room of our own living spaces, and the traces that leaves – then applying that to moving around inside the old houses, to see how they worked and how they would be lived in. Sink to cooker, cooker to chopping board, sink to chopping board, cupboard to sink, fridge to cooker etc. etc. Not that I’m obsessed with food!
At the time, Antonia’s talk had set me off wandering around our house, being very much aware of the imprints I’m leaving. For example…….we had to get a rug, to cover a bit of carpet which had become very worn. This bit of carpet had got more worn than the rest, because it’s just in front of the sofa, where our feet are. But…..take away the sofa and the rug, and the question would be, why is that bit of floor, more worn than the rest? And why are some parts of the walls, more scuffed than others? Archaeology in reverse – looking at what we leave, and how that could be interpreted, instead of looking at what’s been left, and trying to work back from that. Same difference, though, in a way.
I’d often wondered what future archaeologists would make of the collections of things which I place outside, but I hadn’t applied that to what I bring into the house, until Antonia’s mention of what happened with the studio of artist Francis Bacon, prompted me to do so. Francis Bacon’s studio, was investigated as an ‘archaeological site’, before being moved, in its entirety, to a different location, and the archaeologists found that they could work out how he moved around the studio, which areas he worked in most, where his paint palette was for each painting, etc.
This line of thought also took me to Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Rendezvous with Rama’, which presents the idea of…what if we, humans, found what was ‘left’ of a civilization which no longer existed, from somewhere other than Earth, we’d need to approach what was presented to us, in the same way as archaeologists approach what they find of civilizations which have existed here, but of which we know very little, or nothing. I think it’s interesting that Arthur C. Clarke was looking at this idea. An archaeological approach to un-known civilizations, where-ever they are from. In ‘Rendezvous with Rama’, a simple example is when they can’t turn the first air-lock handle, until they think of turning it the other way, maybe that’s how the ‘Raman’s’, worked. Simple as that.
This seems particularly pertinent, as the archaeologists, here, have been finding so much from the distant past of Orkney, from major, solid evidence of ways of life, to the smallest traces of what was eaten, what was burnt on the fires, what plants grew, which were then eaten or burnt.
A good source of information about what has been found, even just in this last dig season, is the UHI Archaeology department blog, https://archaeologyorkney.com/
Going back to the Pictish Smiths hand print – which is the actual mark of the smiths dirty hand! There are also examples of prints left in clay vessels, or on tiles, by dogs, cats, and people.
And….there are human footprints in what was mud, in Norfolk
There are other, similar prints, in other parts of the world.
In ‘The Stone Book Quartet’ Alan Garner weaves something of this, into his tale – I won’t say how – read it!
And what about fossils? This is a photo of a fossil fish, Knigtia Alta, which was swimming about in what is now Wyoming, USA, in the Eocene period, about 40,000,000 years ago.
Our individual time on this earth may be fleeting, whether human, animal, plant, sea or mountain. There are traces of sea-life, at the top of mountains, what were mountains, are now deep beneath the sea, or the land, but still hold the memory of being in the air, as can be evidenced from core samples.
Ripples from long gone seas and rivers, remain, fixed as impressions on stone. The climate of years past can be read from tree rings,
Sometimes information can be gleaned from traces left in or on very ancient trees, indeed. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15564894.2017.1284960?scroll=top&needAccess=true
I’m presently reading ‘Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Art of the Four‘ by Roger Billcliffe, and, time and time again, the captions to the images say “Glasgow School of Art” as where that piece is. And I think, “ So, it was probably burnt” but then, I think at least the image in the book is there. It will be a shadow compared to the original, very much a shadow, but….it is there, and so, what those artists contributed to the world, is still there, in some form. The inspiration, the ideas, the images, are still there.
Everything leaves some trace, in some way, not always even physical.
Sound can be recorded – I can still listen to Bessie Smith, or Prince.
Everything is connected, and nothing ceases to be.