Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Archaeology of Gatherings Conference | Institute of Technology, Sligo, Ireland | October 2013 | Part VI

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I present the concluding segment of an epic trawl through an excellent conference!

Parker Pearson in Sligo © Chapple Collection
The final session of the Archaeology of Gatherings Conference was chaired by Fiona Beglane, who welcomed Prof. Mike Parker Pearson (Institute of Archaeology, University College London). Like many in archaeology, I only know him through his published works and television appearances. On TV, I’ve heard him speak and seen him wander about half of Salisbury plain. He is a respected authority on all things Stonehenge and related and, if I’m honest, I was extremely excited about hearing him speak. At the drinks reception on the Friday night he bought me a G&T, simultaneously cementing my high opinion of him and activating my inner archaeo-fanboy. He was in Sligo as the conference’s Keynote Speaker (Archaeology), and his chosen topic was Gatherings at Durrington Walls and Stonehenge. He began by outlining that recent research at Stonehenge indicates that the site was developed in short bursts of activity, interspersed with periods where no building occurred at all. The first Stage of this process dated to the period from 2990-2755 cal BC, while Stage II was dated to 2580-2475 cal BC. Following Clive Ruggles, he is of the opinion that the only astronomical alignments that we can be sure of are the Midwinter Sunset and the Midsummer Sunrise. However, there may be a possible lunar alignment at the site, dating to Stage I & II activity. Parker Pearson rejects all notions that Stonehenge or similar sites are observatories or ‘Temples of the Sun’, or any such constructs. Instead, he argues that their more important aspects lie in their contexts: their relationships to their immediate topography and their wider landscape setting. Following Colin Renfrew, he sees the Wessex and its henge enclosures, as one of a series of independent regions and social polities.

The Stonehenge Riverside Project (SRP) saw the excavation of 42 trenches at Woodhenge, Stonehenge, and related monuments, including the Cursus and the Avenue. As the Wikipedia article notes: “The main aims of the project was to test the hypotheses of earlier studies that Stonehenge was a monument dedicated to the dead, whilst Woodhenge & Durrington Walls, two miles away, were monuments to the living and more recently deceased.” Essentially, the proposition is that at these sites stone was used to commemorate the ancestors at Stonehenge, while wood was reserved for the living at Woodhenge etc. In this theoretical construct, the River Avon formed a liminal journey between the two realms.

Neolithic house at Durrington Walls excavated in 2007 (Source)
In terms of the excavation background, G.J. Wainwright discovered two Woodhenge-like timber circles during excavations at Durrington Walls. Recent excavations, carried out as part of the SRP initiative, uncovered house floors surrounded by middens. On average, these measured 5.25m square with a central, circular hearth and could have seated 25 people at a pinch. In many respects, they were remarkably similar to the Skara Brae houses in Scotland, with the exception that the latter had rectangular hearths. Surviving remains from within the houses is interpreted by Parker Pearson as evidence that both the Durrington Walls and Skara Brae houses were laid out in the same manner, with beds to the sides and a dresser opposite the entrance. Excavation under the banks at Durrington Walls showed that there was a dense and very rich occupation layer preserved here. Analysis of the modelled radiocarbon dates indicates that the duration of settlement activity at Durrington Walls lasted from 2515 to 2470 cal BC – a mere 45 years. This is broadly parallel to the Stonehenge Stage II developments. Within this time frame, the Durrington Walls chronology may be broken down further, with the southern timber circle and the avenue being constructed in the period from 2500-2480 cal BC, followed by the construction of the ditch and bank at 2480-2460 cal BC.

An examination of the soil micromorphology has revealed that the floors of these houses were built up over the course of up to seven floor-plastering events. Parker-Pearson asks – if the events are accepted as occurring at regularly spaced intervals – how often were the floors plastered? Annually? Once every six months? One potential answer may lie in the excavation of the plaster-digging pits. These were found in groups, and once the stratigraphy was untangled, it became apparent that they contained up to 12 sets of inter-cuttings. Parker Pearson argues that the whole sequence (and, by extension, the lives of the houses) could have been confined to little more than a decade.

Analysis of the contents and positioning of the middens and the pits suggest that different depositional strategies – indicating different forms of activity – were in operation here. For example, the majority of the pits had been dug in the corners of the house, and Parker Pearson argued that they represented activities associated with the ‘closing’ of the sites.  Analysis of the houses themselves showed that they were used for different activities. For example, some have more evidence for cooking than others. Perhaps some were used as kitchens whereas others were used for assembly. The patterns of waste disposal indicated they swept the floors, as the debris was most commonly swept into the corners. Work on the animal bones shows that pig bones dominate in the pits and middens in the public spaces, but analysis of the lipid residues indicates that the pottery was mostly used in conjunction with ruminants. Strontium isotope analysis of the cattle teeth has shown that the animals arrived very rapidly to the site for slaughter. Most of the animals came from relatively close by (20-30 miles), though the evidence points to several animals coming from western Britain, the Scottish highlands, and even Aberdeenshire. The δ18O data suggests that the cattle coming to the site were, largely, from the western zones of Britain, as opposed to the eastern portions.

Parker Pearson touched briefly on what is termed the ‘bluestonehenge’. This is a newly discovered site, excavated in 2008-2009. It was a circle of vertical stones, c.30m in diameter that lay at the end of the Stonehenge avenue. Based on current radiocarbon dates, it was constructed around 3000 cal BC and was finally dismantled c.2400 cal BC. Turning to the ultimate origin of the sanctity of the Stonehenge landscape, Parker Pearson notes that  in 2008 there was a re-excavation of a trench dug by Atkinson in the 1950s through a portion of the avenue. The results showed that the colour and textural differences described by Atkinson were not the result of differential weathering. Instead, they were the remains of an actual periglacial feature created by freeze-thaw action. Further excavations were undertaken in August 2013 under the line of the road that now prove that this was a natural feature that just happened to be on a north-eastern alignment. He suggests that the fortuitous natural coincidence of an alignment between the natural ground feature and the solstice was what convinced the early population to set this place apart as somewhere special. The periglacial feature is also aligned with the well-known Mesolithic pits, indicating that this was a place of gathering and veneration for millennia before Stonehenge itself was built.

Dr Richard Madgwick at work in the lab (Source)
I can only say that I felt incredibly sorry for the next speaker: Dr Richard Madgwick (Cardiff University). Without a doubt, he had the toughest gig of the entire conference. If it wasn’t difficult enough that he was on directly after Parker-Pearson – the giant smiling bear of a man gave an impressive lecture that consolidated much of the last decade’s research at Stonehenge and its landscape, while simultaneously giving enough tasters of new information and discoveries to create an on-going Mexican wave of academic nerdgasm across the lecture hall. On top of all that, Madgwick was ostensibly treading across some of the same ground: Neolithic pig remains from southern Britain. I was reminded of the situation as described by Jerry Garcia, at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where the Grateful Dead had the unenviable task of going on stage directly after The Who (and before Jimi Hendrix). Daltry & Co. had put in a storming set and, as was their wont, destroyed their instruments in an apocalyptic finale. Interviewed about it in 1994, Garcia said ‘So we’re standing there amidst the debris and smoke and it’s time for us to go on. I don’t think anybody even saw us, they were still recovering from The Who.’ Whatever fears Madgwick may have had on this front, they were unfounded and this paper, A Passion for Pork: Feasting in southern Britain from the Neolithic to the Iron Age was simply excellent – and another of my personal highlights of the conference. As he explained, his period of study stretches from the Late Neolithic into the Bronze Age/Iron Age transition. By the latter part of this period, there is a noticeable shift in the use of the landscape that appears to be the result of an increased focus on feasting. The physical remains of this feasting are a number of sites where some very large middens have been preserved. Within these, various artefacts of metal have been found, including portions of cauldrons and bronze bowls. The recovered bone includes both human and animal species. The animal assemblage is dominated by pig, along with a smaller number of sheep remains, though there is one Great White shark tooth, recovered from a roundhouse post-hole. Other exotic finds include a small number of Armorican axe heads from Brittany. As noted above, the dominant species within the animal bone assemblages from these sites are pig. Within this, the most usually recovered portions are the skulls, mandibles, and teeth. While there are some potential preservation issues that can add bias to the sample, there is a distinct predominance of front body parts over back body parts in the pigs. There is also a 70:30 ratio in favour of the right side of the pig being selected. In all, there is a perceptible preference for this front right quarter of the animal.

Madgwick’s analysis of the stable isotopes δ13C and δ15N from 150 samples has shown a massive spread of results from these animals. This suggests that the animals consumed as part of these feasts were not bread on special diets, nor were there any specialist producers. Strontium isotope analysis (87Sr/86Sr) of 13 samples from Potterne suggests that some pigs were locally reared in the Llanmaes area and in the southern Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains, up to 30-40 miles distant. One sample so far examined indicates that the animal probably travelled from the Welsh Marches, a distance of some 50-60 miles. The evidence from so many of these sites is of people and the landscape coming together for these major feasting gatherings.

At Durrington Walls in the Late Neolithic there is a significant focus on pigs. This is quite common for the period, but with up to 90% of the animal bone assemblage being pig, this is particularly dominant. Unlike Potterne, there is no evidence of a particular quarter being selected, but there is still evidence of unusual procurement. Close analysis of has shown that what appear to be the tips of flint arrowheads embedded in the pig bones. While this may be thought of as evidence of hunting, these are domesticated pigs, not wild boar. It is possible that these were deliberately shot with arrows as part of a pre-feasting ritual. Strontium isotope analysis has been carried out on the remains of 23 pigs. This has, so far, demonstrated that nine are probably of local origin; six are fairly local and originated approximately 20 miles away from the site. However, the remaining eight are thought to be from four different regions of Britain. These include two from south/west Wales, one from Scotland, and one from the Lake District. The first thing that Madgwick noted is that this does not mirror the origins of the cattle that came to Durrington Walls. Beyond this, he noted that pigs are actually quite difficult to move, so bringing one from Scotland is no small undertaking. The other issue is that pig is not a scarce animal, so it’s not like it couldn’t have been sourced locally. In this way, it becomes important to ask why it was relevant or necessary to bring pigs all this way. Further analysis of the strontium isotope results, coupled with new sulphur isotope work, suggests that many of these animals were brought up in coastal areas. This would imply that the majority of animals do not originate from anywhere particularly close to Durrington Walls.

Turning to the question: why pigs? Madgwick suggested that they were a high status food with a strong secondary product economy. They’re also efficient meat producers and as swift, large-scale, breeders, they’re pretty easy to replace. However, he argues that we need to move beyond a purely functional explanation of the importance of the pig. I’m afraid this is one point where I must seriously disagree with Madgwick. Throughout my life, I have attempted to cook and eat just about anything that’s made of meat. I’m pretty much the antithesis of a vegetarian. Through all that, I’ve still got to say that pork is simply the loveliest, tastiest, most wonderful meat there is. It’s not just me that thinks like this – just do a Google image search for bacon and you’ll find plenty of images of the stuff … but there are pictures of fake bacon moustaches, bacon suits, bacon dresses, mounds of the stuff, bacon on a bagel (definitely not kosher), the US flag done in bacon, a Star Wars AT-AT in bacon, a portrait of Kevin Bacon done (you guessed it!) in bacon, dress your child, dress your pet, you can even have a bacon-flavoured soda while you sit in you bacon-scented home. Similar Google image searches for beef and mutton only bring back images of the actual foodstuffs in raw or cooked form, and show none of the same cultural fetishisation and emotional elevation that bacon has achieved. It may appear a silly point, made in humour, but I do believe it comes down to the fact that, as Vincent Vega says ‘Bacon tastes gooood. Porkchops taste gooood.

Whatever about the reason for choosing delicious pigs, Madgwick argues that the rise of feasts and feasting in the Late Bronze Age parallels the breakdown of the traditional Bronze Age trade network. In this new cultural landscape, we may be looking at a renegotiation of social polity where pigs are the new currency. Tasty, tasty currency!

Old Scatness broch during excavation (Source)
The final speaker of this session was Dr Julia E.M. Cussans (Archaeological Solutions Ltd.), representing her colleagues Stephen J. Dockrill, Ian Armit, Julie M. Bond, and Jo T. McKenzie (all University of Bradford) in the delivery of their joint paper: ‘You’re invited to a party, don’t turn up legless’: case studies in feasting and community gatherings in Iron Age Scotland. Cussans explained that the paper would deal with the excavated evidence for Scottish feasting in the Iron Age, based on the recovered materials from Old Scatness Broch, on South Shetland, and Broxmouth Hillfort.

At Old Scatness, the walls of the central broch were 5m thick and the structure was surrounded by a substantial ditch. She explained that Phase 4, dating to the Iron Age, saw the primary acts deposition within this ditch. Excavation recovered lots of animal bone, all of it very fresh in appearance, with no pre-depositional damage. Thus, the implication is that the material was not first deposited elsewhere – say, in a midden, - and later pushed into the ditch. It was deposited immediately after consumption directly into the ditch. The succeeding Phase 5 dates to the first centuries BC to AD and is characterised by what Cussans describes as ‘normal domestic middens’. During Phase 4 the dominant animals are cattle, sheep, and pig. In terms of body part preservation, the cattle appear to represent whole animals, slaughtered on the site. The sheep and pig remains were dominated by limb bones, with very few heads and feet preserved. All the bones recovered indicated that the individuals, regardless of species, were of prime meat-age animals. This is in contrast to the sheep bones from Phase 5, where the evidence indicates that the whole animal was utilised on site, and at a range of ages. Taken together, the Phase 4 activity is regarded as evidence of conspicuous feasting where the remains are deposited directly into the ditch. There is a deliberate selection for the best meaty parts of the animal, especially meat on the bone. The deposited large, unbroken bone pieces mean that they were not cracked to extract the highly nutritious marrow. This in itself is evidence of ‘conspicuous consumption’ where calorificly valuable materials were publicly wasted by deposition into the ditch. This is in direct contrast to the Phase 5 activity, where the entirety of the animal was processed to extract all possible nutrients.

Broxmouth hillfort in East Lothian was investigated as part of a rescue excavation in the 1970s. This was, essentially, a multi-ditched enclosure, surrounding a collection of roundhouses. The animal bone assemblage was exceptionally well preserved. Cattle, sheep, and pig dominated the corpus, though horse, dog, cat, and otter were also recorded. Based on an analysis of tooth wear, the age of the pigs at slaughter has been estimated at 1-2 years. In terms of sexing the pigs, it appears that there were more males than females across Phases 1-6. The authors also conclude that it is unlikely that that they were brought in from any great distance. Metrics gathered on the pig limb bones shows a dominance of the forelimbs that may be broken down across individual phases of occupation. For example, in Phase 3 63% of the limb bones were from the front half of the animal. This increased to 70% in Phase 5 and 73% in Phase 6. Cussans noted that, unlike Madgwick’s work, there had been no examination of a left vs. right imbalance in the preserved remains.

At both of these sites, pigs are clearly marked out in the Iron Age as feasting-compatible animals. Beyond this, they are tied up in concepts of tribute and conspicuous consumption. Feasting in these instances may be seen as a means of bringing together communities at high status sites. The pigs may be viewed as gifts or tribute from outside, while the act of receiving the gift is well known as a mechanism for the maintenance of high status and enforcement of status boundaries. The deposition of the bones in the ditch at Old Scatness should not be seen as a means of disposal of waste. Instead, the display of food debris on the site boundary may be interpreted as a deliberate show of wealth and power, proudly proclaiming to the world: ‘Look at us! We’re so rich we can afford to waste this resource!’

Following a final question-and-answer session, the conference drew to a close with warm applause for both the speakers and the organisers. For those who felt up to it, there was a tour around the magnificent megalithic monuments of Sligo. Unfortunately, I had a long journey back to Belfast ahead of me, so had to pass on that portion of the conference … maybe next time!

Well, folks, I hope you enjoyed reading through all these posts & I hope they bear some similarity to the papers as given at the conference. I certainly enjoyed writing them! But not as much as I enjoyed attending the actual conference. All the people at Sligo IT who were involved in the organising and flawless running of the event deserve high praise for their efforts. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, my posts will be eclipsed by the publication of the conference papers. I also hope that these posts – though an imperfect record of the papers delivered – will give some flavour of the event itself and encourage people to purchase the volume when it arrives. Finally, when news reaches you that the good folk at Sligo IT are organising another archaeological conference, I hope that you will consider going along and enjoying it in person. Based on this experience, it will be another extraordinary gathering bringing together a wide variety of experts and enthusiasts for fun and education.