A Review of the Orkney Archaeology Review 2021

By Bernie Bell

Pics by B&M Bell

As Members of the Orkney Archaeology Society https://orkneyarchaeologysociety.org.uk/  we receive the annual Orkney Archaeology Review – FREE!!!!

I was wondering if this year’s edition would have much solid content, as the digs were not able to happen last year due to Covid restrictions.

I’ll mention here that – HURRAH!  The dig at the Ness of Brodgar is happening this year – on a more limited scale – but …IT IS HAPPENING!!!  Check with the OAS for details. YAY!!!!  THE NESS DIG IS HAPPENING THIS YEAR!!!!!

Our copy of the Review arrived, and I needn’t have had any concerns about content – it’s packed with interesting articles and food for thought – proving that there’s more to working archaeology than just the actual excavation work.

As I have a mild obsession with Neolithic carved stone balls, I was pleased to see an article by Hugo Anderson-Whymark and Christopher Gee presenting new information on the provenance of three Orcadian carved stone balls, two of which were found, recorded, then ‘lost’ again.   This information has come to light relatively recently due to documents being found in a house in Kirkwall.

Clues and keys to history and archaeology can turn up in unexpected places, and lead to further research.

I was also interested to read Siobhan Cooke-Miller’s explanation of the on-going De-colonial practice at Stromness Museum. 

It’s another one of the many ‘bees on my bonnet’ – that objects of historical, archaeological, or social importance should stay in their country of origin, preferably as near as possible to where they were discovered.

In recent years there has been a move on the part of museums worldwide, large and small, to re-patriate artefacts and artworks to their place of origin.

It was often the case that Europeans arrived to find what they saw a being more ’primitive’ cultures, and appropriated even sacred objects to themselves.

The Grand Tour had a lot to answer for. 

It could be said that, if everything stays in its place of origin, how would folk in other places get to see them?   Encountering artefacts from other cultures, and information about other cultures, can help with an understanding of differences in ways of being – not better – not worse – just different.

The  answer could be copies – good copies – there you go.

It’s good to see that the folk at the Stromness Museum are working towards a more fair assessment and representation of the cultures which some of their artefacts have come from. I hope Siobhan doesn’t mind if I quote from her article, but she expresses this approach very neatly ….”De-colonising means to understand where power and privilege come from. Furthermore, it is taking action to divest some of that power and privilege to those who have been excluded, marginalised, objectified and misrepresented.”

The staff at Stromness Museum are looking hard at the collections there.  Not only how they came to be there, but also – let’s say – who was telling the story at the time?  A good example is the tale of Eliza Fraser….

Eliza’s view of her ‘captivity’ by the Butchulla people, and how the Elders of today explain what was happening, are very different things.  It looks like it could have been a huge mis-understanding on the part of Eliza, due to the fact that the world she found herself in was so very different from what she was used to. 

How many times, throughout history, has that happened?

For that matter, I could equate that with the lack of understanding of the peoples of the distant past which has been exhibited by many archaeologists and historians until relatively recently.

I realise that I’m half telling the tale of Eliza – I should leave you to read the Review and get the whole story!

I also realise that I could end up going into each article in too much detail, and thereby detract from a full enjoyment of reading the Review.  Suffice it to say – there is a good ‘dollop’ of Norse – Waterways, Time Travel (!), and the Viking influence on Orcadian culture and tourism.

There’s a helping of magic – where would anything about Orkney be without a bit of magic?  Magic tales of the land and the sea – objects which begin with a function, but become a charm….

I’ll insert here an extract from something I wrote in a previous article in TON entitled ‘Conversations With Magic Stones’ about an exhibition of that name in Tankerness House Museum. As part of this exhibition there was a tale of an old chap who wore a flint arrow-head round his neck all his life. It had been an heirloom and he firmly believed that it would preserve him from evil.  On his death he left strict instructions for it to be buried with him.  The full tale is told in James Mainland Macbeath’s ‘Orkney’s Early Celtic Times (1892)’.

And some folk still do the same thing………

This isn’t an old arrow head, it’s a ‘new’ one made from flint – the techniques are the same – the pleasing shape is the same.  Possibly the beliefs are also similar?

There are objects whose function is very hard to fathom, such as the carved stone balls previously mentioned, and the stone spatulate tools found at the Ness of Brodgar which feature in one of the articles in the Review.  They look useful, but what were they fooooor?

Also from the Ness  – textiles – yes, evidence of textiles in the form of imprints on Neolithic pottery.

And from there, with a bit more time travel, we come to the Iron Age and The Cairns broch, South Ronaldsay, where the article in the Review focusses on re-constructing past landscapes around The Cairns by examining pollen, which reveals the presence of willow, dwarf birch, and pine.  Herbaceous pollen has also been recorded, including plants which are very familiar indeed in Orkney today – daisy, dandelion, and meadowsweet.

Forward in time again to the Hall of Clestrain, birthplace and home of Arctic explorer Dr. John Rae  where a careful, socially distanced excavation outdoors was possible, revealing stone work, and also some treasures in the form of varied ceramics.

I like to think of the good Doctor walking on those stones, looking across from his garden to the seaways which he travelled.

See what I mean?  For a year when not much was happening – a lot was happening!  An archaeologist’s work is never done….

The Orkney Archaeology Review will be available to purchase from relevant local shops from Monday the 17th May, and on-line from the OAS web site from the 25th May  – cost £10 –  but, if you become a Member, you get it FREE!

Have I tempted you enough?

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