The appeal of a good story

Some ideas regarding the past linger in the popular imagination even once they become superseded. It can be very difficult to change a well-loved narrative.

Archaeology is a popular subject today and that is a good thing. Interesting narratives relating to the past are increasingly common and it is not unusual to find people incorporating material into general conversation. It is very different to my childhood and a big step forward.

I do, however, have one, little, niggling, problem.

Once a popular story has taken root in the general consciousness it becomes very difficult to change it. Now, archaeologists beaver away, developing their techniques of analysis and producing new interpretations which they are increasingly keen to promote to the public. Press releases, lectures, popular articles: there is no shortage of information. Despite this, one still finds that the old accounts tend to linger in the public imagination.

It is thus all too common in Orkney to hear people discussing the ‘subterranean’ nature of Skara Brae as if the early farmers were a community of hobbits, snugly ensconced in their cosy burrows. Research indicates that the passageways between the houses were only roofed over towards the end of the life of the settlement as the encroaching coast and changing weather patterns made life less comfortable. There were other changes at the same time: at this period it is evident that the cultivation of crops had diminished on fields increasingly affected by sand blow and salt spray. While some visitors still have visions of the abrupt abandonment of the village during a great storm, there is in fact no good evidence for this. A more organic desertion should be envisioned, as offspring left for better farmlands elsewhere in the islands and life became increasingly harsh for those who chose to remain. Not unlike many farming settlements throughout history. Those who called Skara Brae home worked hard to maintain life there in the face of an increasingly harsh environment. They were a community of considerable sophistication, not the primitive coastal troglodytes sometimes portrayed.

The inhabitants of Skara Brae would certainly have known the great stone circles such as Ring of Brodgar. They may well have been frequent visitors to the ceremonial sites that lay a few hours walk away. These sites continue to receive many visitors, and it is not uncommon to be questioned about the ‘fact’ that the ditches that surround them once contained water. Now this is a nice story, but even a cursory glance at the sloping topography might suggest inherent problems. And yet, it comes up every time I take students to the site – even though they will have been given recent papers to read. Papers which discuss the theory and the lack of evidence for it. It is a good check as to whether they have been doing their homework, but it is also a sad indication of the way in which the uncritical acceptance of an idea can take hold, especially when bolstered by the fact that it has been proposed by a charismatic, well-respected, figure.

There are endless possible examples and I am sure we all have our favourites. Those Neanderthals who were particularly primitive and communicated only by grunting? They turn out to have been sophisticated hunting communities, well adapted to conditions at the time, who made use of musical tonation, read each other’s facial expression, and may well have produced some of the earliest cave art.

Of course, in creating the stories of today we are setting up the targets for future nit pickers like myself. I don’t think there is a way around the endless march of new information. But it does put the onus on us as archaeologists to have a care as to how we disseminate our wisdom. We need to reinforce the message regarding the way in which our interpretations develop and become refined over time. And we need to be careful of our facts at any one point. It is tempting to succumb to the allure of hyperbole in a press release, or the appeal of a catchy narrative as the conclusion to a site report. Sometimes it seems deceptively simple. But it will, all too often, come back to bite us when we least want it to. At the same time, there is more need than ever for new accounts. It is important to keep writing to produce up to date leaflets, websites, books and interpretations. There should be no excuse for people to have to turn to out of date material for their information. We should, at the same time, make sure that we are always available for others to check their facts and ideas. Those who are writing novels, guidebooks and even television and other scripts should always feel welcome when approaching an archaeologist and it is important that we have time for them.

Only in this way can we dispel the myths of the past.