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.