Benbecula’s submerged forest

This week’s archaeology session was the last on the course, so this will be (one of) the last posts on this topic. Apart from the (optional) assignment – at 1,500 words (max), this is little more than a blog post these days (and sometimes even less than that), so I will be viewing it as compulsory – to be submitted in the course of the next two weeks, the formal sessions are now finished. The assessment provides the opportunity to demonstrate our learning on the course themes of coastal erosion and how to shape our futures by learning from the past (hence, of course, the shameless but symbolic plundering of #FridaysForThePast); and I will be posting that here, too.

Friday afternoon saw an online (Webex) session with Kevin Murphy, county archaeologist for the Western Isles archaeology service and a committee member of the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers. The local authority-based archaeology service was set up across the UK in the 1970s to help overcome the disasters (here: for archaeology) of 1960s planning decisions and that remit, to ensure that the needs of archaeology has an input into the planning and development process, remains the mainstay of the service.

Scarce resources is an abiding issue – Kevin not only leads the team on the Western Isles but indeed is also it – and he is one of a rare breed, there being only a handful of archaeologists in Scotland more than there are local authorities (the numbers being, IIRC, 36 and 32 respectively). Across the Western Isles there are around 13,500 sites of interest; and the perennial problem, as far as I can see, is not only one of the scale of the task – monitoring development projects to ensure that they do not threaten sites of interest, amongst other roles – but also of the distances associated with the patch: unless travelling by plane – and there are evident problems with that in an environmental context – a road trip from Stornoway to Uist and Benbecula (and there are no other options…) is a day’s travel. And, for points even in South Uist but certainly Barra, that’s a day’s travel in each direction.

Managing all those requirements means working very closely with a range of agencies and stakeholders, and, indeed, dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers. Kevin is evidently hard-pressed and we were grateful both for his time and for his insights into his role and to the art of the possible. There is enough resilience to ensure that one big storm doesn’t blow it all away but the inescapable impression is one of an important local service being held together by bits of string and a blob or two of glue; and with fingers that are firmly crossed.

As if to highlight that lesson, the following day’s field trip was to the submerged forest – remains of trees now surrounded by sand and washed by the tide – near Lionacleit, on Benbecula. This was discovered by Ann Monk, a local resident, as recently as 2014; and it was a privilege to have Ann on this trip, as well as the expert and detailed insights provided by Simon Davies. There are submerged forests elsewhere in Europe (including quite famously at Borth, in Cardigan Bay), but this is one of the biggest and best preserved: when surveyed in 2018, teams investigated two 30m x 30m squares and found, in just one, 380 samples of tree remnants including birch, willow and Scots pine set into peat. Storms and the shifting sands that result both from wind and wave action mean that some of these remnants are no longer visible – but, at the same time, that others have also been uncovered.

The day was one of those where you needed to have the right clothes (and not to be a wearer of spectacles) but we visited all the major areas of the site including peat deposits, tree remnants, the butchery site, possible walls and dwellings, and the quern stone (actually both, although one appears to have been moved and replaced recently). It is somewhat humbling both to know that the surface that you’re standing on was a terrain familiar to Neolithic humans – living some 7,000 years ago (even if they might not exactly recognise the surroundings of the place today) – as well as that, crucially, peat doesn’t form in salt water: and that, therefore, what is now a tidal bay was once a freshwater loch, with the Atlantic being perhaps 5km further out to the west and the loch itself stretching south to the modern shore at Balgarva, on South Uist (where there are also tree remnants).

Tree remnants, with archaeology flagpole
With added humans, for scale
The in situ quern stone, used to grind wheat to make flour (though a time consuming business probably taking about 6-8 hours to grind enough to make bread for a single family)

A site that is now entirely tidal and thus flooded twice per day – but which was once secure (and dry) enough for a small community to locate their lives here and call it home.

The point is of course that the submerged forest and the other elements of the site – this ‘incredibly rare’ finding – was found, not by chance (it was the result of informed assessment of the possibilities and of determined exploration with that in view), but by an individual person outside the framework of a planned archaeological survey. In a different sort of society, one less guided by scarce resources, it wouldn’t be necessary for individuals to have to act in this way since we’d know what was (likely to be) there – but, given the constraints provided by our own, it is vital that they do. Lionacleit is a fabulous, historical place and it is completely astonishing that such important remains could have been discovered by an individual; and so recently. And, of course, the question remains of just how much else there is – if not quite beneath our feet – just a little further away. If it is true that we’re never more than 164′ away from a rat, is the same also true of archaeological remains?

This has been a really interesting course and series of lectures and site visits; and, indeed, I’ll not quite be sure what else to do with my Friday afternoons. Thanks to our enthusiastic and motivated lecturers, Dr. Emily Gal and Dr. Rebecca Rennell, and to other course participants, for some enlivening discussions and for information that has been, by turns, mind-blowing and life-affirming. There may well be another local studies course to engage with but, in the meantime, and when the weather improves a little from its damp and blustery self, there’s always some fieldwork to engage with for that assignment. Together with the knowledge that something might well be there which it is now up to me to report on. Humbling, indeed.

Just going about their business…

This week’s archaeology lecture was a very interesting session on the preserving qualities of sand, with specific reference to Links of Noltland, up on Westray, Orkney. This is an important late Neolithic/Bronze Age site (which means 3000 BCE-2500 BCE) – even the name juggles both Scots, Norse and English – and, like a lot of Orkney’s heritage, is both buried in sand and vulnerable to coastal erosion. Excavating the site, and preserving it for future use, represents a challenge in which available resources are confronted with the remorseless impact of time.

Consequently it provides an excellent illustration of the coastal archaeology course on which I’m enrolled; and has important resonance for the Western Isles given that a large number of the sites of archaeological interest – over 13,000 of them – on these islands are coastal (or, at least, they are now…) and a large number of those are buried in the sand beneath our feet.

My lecture notes need a little more time for reflection as the content was complex but the week also featured a good class discussion (online, of course) inspired by two items of source material which looked at what prehistoric civilisations can tell us about dealing with coastal erosion. The first was a 2009 article by Jim Leary in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology looking at the flooding of the North Sea lowlands; the second a contemporary piece by Robert Barnett and Sophie Ward in The Conversation looking at how rising sea levels affected what is now the Scilly Isles, in the south-west corner of the UK.

There is little evidence as to what happened to the peoples who once inhabited the vast area of the North Sea lowlands – Doggerland – which once connected the UK and continental Europe (why didn’t they write anything down?!) and so essentially we are only surmising about what became of them; but there is a little more evidence from Scilly, where rising sea levels were associated not with a decline in human activity, as might be expected, but in a flourishing of it. The key point is of course that coastal change, erosion and rising sea levels affect people in different ways depending on precise location – the spark for Barnett and Ward’s conclusion that it is local communities that have to drive response plans. Scilly may well have flourished whereas Doggerland – hit by immensely rising sea levels (of about 1.25 cm/year; or 30+cm per generation) – had already become a series of low-lying islands even before the ‘Storegga Slide’ swept much of the rest of the land away.

The question which occupied much of the class discussion – and which is also well addressed by Leary, although the simple lack of evidence leads him to go a little anthropological in the middle – was why people stay in low-lying areas affected by inundations and rising sea levels. It’s evidently a recurring question. Many people – in many communities around the world and including up on Baile Sear, which has been the focus of all our field trips so far – are also facing similar questions. Aside of the very different, and the changing nature of, the barriers to mobility, human beings across thousands of years are likely to have had fairly similar answers to tidal inundations and to the essential question, posed restrospectively, of ‘why didn’t they leave?’: family; community; and residence. All provide ties to the land (and/or the sea), even in hunter-gatherer societies; and all provide very valid justifications for not moving, in spite of all the evidence surrounding them.

Mulling over these questions later that evening while watching a bit of TV – it does sometimes happen in this household – I was struck by something really rather profound said by one of the characters in The Missing, a programme made by the BBC (of course) and whose second series was filmed in 2016. Both series were well received and well-watched, it appears, although it is an open question as to whether such a series – set in Europe, featuring characters speaking languages that are not their own and, where they are speaking their own language, the dialogue is not always sub-titled into English – would be commissioned in these Brexter’d Isles today. Anyway, Julien Baptiste, a retired (and ill) detective, is travelling in 2014 in northern Iraq/Iraqi Kurdistan to find evidence in support of a promise made to a parent of a murdered teenager and he has procured Stefan Andersson, a journalist, as travelling companion. Reaching the city of Azwya, which has been the subject of recent intense fighting between Isil forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga, they first encounter utter desolation – not a soul in sight and every building stripped back to the bare bricks by shells and gunfire, roofless and only frames where windows and doors used to be, concrete acting as road blocks and rubble everywhere. Later, they sit down watching some young lads playing football, while some semblance of normal life returns behind them. People had, it seems, been in hiding from the fighting.

Baptiste: ‘Remarkable, is it not? In front of all this, people still go about their business.’

Andersson: ‘This is the only way of taking control of your life, I suppose. Feeling like your future is in your own hands for a change.’ (The Missing, Series II, programme 2 ‘The Turtle and the Stick’ @ 42.05)

It struck me immediately that this is likely to be a time-honoured response to disaster, whether in Azwya in the middle of the Iraq War; or on Doggerland or on Scilly thousands of years ago. Faced with problems that are external in nature and environmental, which wreak their own havoc and which exist beyond your own control and your own plans, your choices are limited – of course, you organise to fight back, however you can and by whatever means. But, ultimately, you stay because that remains your decision and, when everything else is being taken away, that decision – perverse as it might sometimes appear – is the only thing that remains your own and within your own control.

What should Auntie do now?

Yesterday’s announcement by DCMS Culture Secretary freezing the BBC licence fee for the next two years (until April 2024) before allowing it to rise in line with inflation until April 2028, was an interesting exercise in news management since much of the coverage concerned how the licence fee will be replaced from 2028. The DCMS statement itself really wasn’t about that – the future beyond 2028 was somewhat shoe-horned into the press release as its very last paragraph, covering around 60 words out of about 900.

Nevertheless, the BBC has some powerful detractors in the media, all with their own vested interests in getting rid of the licence fee; the ongoing ‘culture war’ evidently sees the BBC as one enemy (among many); and Secretary of State Nadine Dorries first announced the news by the somewhat unusual method of tweeting out a link to a Daily Mail article (and clearly setting out her own agenda for the press release in the process), only tweeting the link to the official DCMS press release sometime later. A department whose current political head believes that this licence fee settlement should be the last might seem – in the context of a forthcoming separate consultation on ‘whether the licence fee will remain a viable funding model for the BBC’ – might seem to have rather pre-judged the outcome of that consultation.

And, of course – of course – this government of populists (that is, this Prime Minister) needs a few distracting headlines of its own right now.

The single argument raised in support of the freeze – that people facing ‘a sharp increase in their living costs’ could not be asked to pay more for the BBC at this point – is a powerful, but multi-sided, one. We should question the role being played by the government’s own policies in the steepness of that increase and what it ought to be doing to redress those in practice.

Furthermore, this is a government whose policies usually pay attention to the living standards of working people only when it suits it: it is failing to address the dramatic rise in energy costs being experienced by people whose energy suppliers (or re-sellers) are bankrupting themselves; it refused to extend the £20 uplift to universal credit given during the early stages of Covid-19; and it only acted on free school meals during school holidays when it was publicly shamed into doing so by Marcus Rashford (whose subsequent gong courtesy of Her Madge is telling on so many levels). The failure of wages even to keep pace with inflation – yesterday’s other half of today’s living costs news – gives a further lie to the arguments of Brexiteer cheerleaders (Nadine Dorries among them) about the ‘reserve army of labour’ coming from the EU (to which there were anyway other solutions than Brexit): almost as if the weakness of our labour market institutions (i.e. our trade unions) hadn’t been the intended result of much of public labour market policy for the last forty years. And, indeed, where is the Employment Bill?

Naturally, a ‘sharp rise’ in inflation means that the freezing of the BBC licence fee will have an even more deleterious impact on its services – that’s programmes, of course – since it will need to be either ‘absorbed’ (by way of ‘efficiencies’ – also known as ‘cuts’) or else in reduced levels of programming (which are also quite clearly cuts).

While recognising that £159/year (or £13.25/month) is a lot of money – quarterly and monthly payment options are available, at little or no extra cost – and that more needs to be done in respect of those on low incomes and the elderly, I think the licence fee provides good value and should be retained. This is clearly not a popular view – note that the BBC’s own reporting of yesterday’s story contains, quite uniquely, a section on ‘Can I legally avoid paying the licence fee?’ – but I’m far from alone here: in-depth 2016 opinion poll research by GfK (for the government) on the alternative options then under consideration emerged with the view that the licence fee was actually the most favoured of these (section 7; p. 40ff).

Comparatively speaking, the licence fee is also in fairly rude health. A subscription to the news and opinion columns of a leading newspaper, often linked to in these parts, is £119/year (or £11.99/month); a Netflix subscription costs, at basic, single, level £5.99/month – or £13.99 for a family of four watching screens at the same time; Sky plus Netflix is £26/month (18-month contract); and Sky plus Netflix plus broadband stacks out at £46/month (18-month contract). With Netflix – a platform which, essentially, is collecting your information about your viewing habits with a view to monetising you further – there is of course no public service broadcasting element; Sky – no longer a vehicle of the Murdoch family following its sale to US giant Comcast in 2018 – also has no public service broadcasting obligations and its basic programming (not including sports…) thus costs at least as much again as the BBC licence fee. In terms of earnings, the £3.05/week which the licence fee costs (per household) compares pretty favourably with the £550/week which is the November 2021 average weekly pay figure.

Quite a lot of people yesterday were spending time justifying – one way or another – their BBC viewing and listening habits, but I think this is a dead end. I suspect that few of us escape the BBC entirely (and why on earth would you want to?) and, while there are rightly some things that need to be learned around pay equality, around some of its editorial decisions, around its interpretation of its requirement for impartiality (flat earth being but the latest ridiculousness), as well as around its role as a part of the establishment, the BBC does do a lot of things very well. It’s very easy to focus on an area of public spending on which individuals don’t see a lot of personal return (health, roads, benefits) and demand a cut – but we can’t escape taxation and we don’t live in a pick’n’mix society (and nor should we). There is, however, such a thing as public goods – things for which we all pay regardless of individual consumption but which lowers the cost to all of us. To me, the BBC is a public good (a look at other subscriptions – as above – points heavily in this direction, too) – and the ‘soft power’ return to ‘global Britain’ of a corporation which has worldwide brand recognition and which enjoys global trust is incalculable. We squander that at our peril.

Nevertheless, the perils of squandering things do not tend to occupy for very long the thought processes of vandals determined to stamp their boots over society. Dorries’s very public scribbling on the wall doesn’t signal the end of the licence fee as much as advertise for trainee grave diggers and fire lighters – though we should note that 2028 is at least one government away, and that even 2024 may well not end up within the purview of this one (please). Dorries herself is unlikely to see 2024 in post – there have been no fewer than six secretaries of state within DCMS in the 4.5 years since it was established and she is thus already almost half-way through the average tenure.

If I was Tim Davie, I would thus be putting a deal of effort into building relationships within the opposition, within the trade unions and within the creative sector generally ahead of the DCMS consultation with a view to building as much support as possible around the future for public service broadcasting in order to raise public perceptions of how much the BBC does in this area. While the question of the consultation is for another day (it will come: this government is, in respect of its pet projects, one that is in a hurry, as much as it is slothful elsewhere), I note that the BBC is not the only public service broadcaster and that others are funded for this role from central taxation. Where we end up in terms of BBC funding, presuming a continuation of current policy, may well therefore be some sort of hybrid model of central taxation plus subscription (I’m not arguing for this – just what I think is most likely). In this respect, maximising the channels which are geared to delivering public service broadcasting (and which are funded out of taxation) may well be the best means of minimising the impact of those boots.

[EDITED 19 January 2021 to record that Sky is now owned by Comcast.]

The power of words

Like a lot of people in my corner of the internet, I’ve recently become attracted to the daily Wordle puzzle published online. I first came across it via Twitter, when some of those I follow started around the turn of the year to publish some strange coloured runes accompanied by a wee bit of unfathomable text – and then someone posted a link to a short news item (now lost to me, I’m afraid) giving me a clue as to what it’s all about.

For the uninitiated, this version of Wordle (I first encountered the word years ago as a form of software for drawing word clouds to help make visual sense of large blocks of text, now with an address slightly shifted to edwordle.net) is a simple word game in which you have six goes to guess a five-letter (proper) word. The response to each guess you make is a green tile for a letter which is in the right place in the target word; an amber one for a letter which is in the target word but not in the same place as in your entry; and a grey tile for each letter in your entry which is not in the target word. It’s a bit like the ‘Mastermind’ board game in the 1970s, only with words as the target rather than coloured pegs; and you get fewer goes (but, as a result, with more specific information in response). I didn’t really get Mastermind (others did…) and probably the key for me is the use of words here rather than coloured pegs.

Each day’s Wordle is posted on a simple website – www.powerlanguage.co.uk/wordle – and its ‘inventor’ is ‘Josh Wardle’ who describes himself as an ‘artist, product manager and engineer’ and whose confessed purpose is to use the game to focus on human interaction. The result is that your Wordle results are easily shareable: the link to do so translates the outcome of your game into the runes I described above (and of which you may be able to see some examples down there on the left margin of this page) from which it’s a simple matter to paste into your social(s) of choice. Twitter, in my case. There is an unspoken code of conduct between players in which there are no spoilers; and the tiles within the ‘share’ button hide all the letters of your guesses so, on viewing others’ achievements, you know neither the solution nor the letters which are no longer in play.

It is, ultimately, just a bit of fun although these days there’s not that much on the internet that’s ‘just for fun’.

Yesterday’s Wordle indeed caused a bit of a kerfuffle, as you might well be able to judge from my outcome screenshot below (and which will lead to some merriment among my language editing clients who are, at first glance, bemused by my question as to whether they want what Microsoft, rather loosely, calls ‘US English’ or ‘UK English’). Some were angry at the apparent misdirection which had led to their stats of solved puzzles being undermined, or at solutions being found in more goes than hitherto, as well as to the numbers of words now in play which do not exactly ‘favour’ UK players; others were more resigned about the clues this gives to the state of the world (and, you might think, ‘global Britain’s’ place within it).

Given that you start with a blank sheet of paper, the game is surprisingly easy to get right and I wouldn’t be surprised if my ‘completed’ stats (75%; based on two out of eight games not being completed (I’m not exactly an early adopter…): one the first as I put in any old nonsense to check how it worked; the other another early attempt where I had a 50:50 at go six and plumped for the wrong one) were not among the lowest of regular users. I did, however, spend a lot more time on this one than on the others. After go two, I knew the word had an ‘a’ in place two and ended with an ‘r’; word endings of ‘-ur’ are not that common; while not that many end in ‘-or’ either (depending, of course, on your dictionary) although there aren’t many other choices than these. I got lucky with go three (I was thinking of valorise – and don’t get me started there, either!) which told me it ended in ‘-avor’ but I still wasn’t thinking of the US approach to spelling, running through my options twice before plumping, with a fair degree of trepidation, for ‘favor’ (as there was nothing else it could have been).

The feeling of being let-down was present, although brief: ‘Josh’ is American so this sort of problem and these sorts of feelings simply wouldn’t occur. And, of course, all these games have to start with some sort of a dictionary – and therein lies a world of debate between users of English. I’m not complaining – keeping all this in the air for other people does help to keep me in work 🙂

In my case, I was more upset about the apparent misdirection: the .co.uk suffix in the website’s domain name had, for me, led to a non-thinking, automatic presumption of the use of ‘UK English’ on the site (although I also know that country code top level domains haven’t been restricted to the countries concerned for over twenty years now – and which process has made a bit of money for Tuvalu (.tv) and Montenegro (.me). Being ‘UK English’ myself, that sort of presumption comes anyway as naturally as ‘US English’ would to an American. Other languages wouldn’t have this sort of problem – and I can easily see versions of Wordle working very well at powerlanguage.de, powerlanguage.ro and powerlanguage.ba, for instance. (Well, maybe not .de on the grounds that there may well not be enough five-letter words around in German.)

But we are precious about our stats and our record and achievements; and about a presumption of simple honesty of those who deal with us, even if we are partnering with an algorithm of some kind. We don’t like being played for fools; and being led to agonise over a combination of letters that is really quite simple does make us feel foolish. There are also cultural values at stake here, too, in terms of the word choices: interestingly, today’s word (achieved by this writer in four goes) is, I suspect, likely to be achieved more quickly and more readily by users of ‘UK English’.

I always start with ‘raise’, by the way: it’s the word that makes the best use of the most-used letters in the English alphabet. Though whether those are the same most-used letters in five-letter words is a different question – and, perhaps, a job of work already being engaged in by ‘Josh’. (NB I can’t see any data privacy protocols around the site or which become apparent on first use and, like anything else, Wordle – for all its desire to get ‘humans’ talking around shared issues – is surely likely to be a data collection operation somewhere along the line.) Others might find more fun in starting with a word inspired by current affairs – party, for instance – and making connections that way. Going from ‘party’ to ‘slump’ (the Wordle from a few days ago) would have been amusing, even if we know that the day’s word of choice is not made by a human but by an algorithm with no interest in the current affairs of ‘UK England’.

[Edit 27 January 2022: Wordle has been rumbled – though indeed that won’t stop me playing and, occasionally, sharing. It seems as though some of my suspicions in this piece were a little wide of the mark, though the thought that inspired them – that we need to be more careful online – still remains valid. And, yes, some things on the internet are indeed just for fun. And that’s a happy thought.]

[Edit 2: 1 February 2022: Well, indeed I spoke too soon since Wardle yesterday sold Wordle to the New York Times for what the company said was ‘in the low seven figures’. Not a bad return for an apparently simple piece of coding drawn up originally to give a bit of fun to his wife – and good luck to him. He promises that it will remain ‘free’ and that he is working with the NYT to ensure people’s stats are transferred (though it seems the NYT is only promising ‘initially free‘). But then, nothing is ‘free’ (or, indeed, in Wardle’s own words, can ‘just be fun‘) on the internet – the NYT exists behind a paywall and, while Wordle, once transferred, may well continue to be ‘free’ (at least for a while), it will be in return for at least your registration on its website and the cookies it will place on your computer as a result to track where you go. Plus, quite probably, a few ads. That may well be a ‘no thanks’ from me.]