South Uist: Archaeology and History of a Hebridean Island By Mike Parker Pearson, Niall Sharples And Jim Symonds
Two outstanding books have recently been published about the archaeology and history of the Outer Hebrides. Andrew Fleming’s St Kilda and the Wider World is one; Parker Pearson et al's is the other. South Uist presents the results of a major interdisciplinary and collaborative research project undertaken principally by the Universities of Sheffield and Cardiff for over a decade from 1990, and co-ordinated by Mike Parker Pearson and Niall Sharples. The project led on from an earlier Sheffield University initiative in the Outer Hebrides – the SEARCH project, begun in 1987 and led by Keith Branigan – and by the end of the fieldwork phase in 2004, some 6 large-scale and 15 smaller-scale excavations had been undertaken (as well as landscape and palaeoenvironmental surveys), involving over 1000 archaeology students and volunteers from Britain and America. With substantial funding from Historic Scotland and support from a variety of other sources, this project has revolutionised our understanding of the prehistory and history of this island, offering us a richly textured longue durée narrative spanning nearly eight millennia.
The volume starts with a consideration of the issues surrounding island archaeology in general, and an entertaining account of the past archaeological investigations on North Uist going back to the work of Captains Thomas and Otter in the mid-19th century. An intriguing range of motivation for fieldwork is revealed, from Werner Kissling’s love affair with the island in the early 1950s, to the need to investigate sites in advance of the construction of the Rocket Range in the late 1950s, and an equally urgent need to rescue sites on the vulnerable coastal machair that were threatened by coastal erosion in the 1980s – a threat that continues to this day, as the horrifying hurricane of January 2005 demonstrated.
Chapters 2-10 present a chronological account of the archaeology and history of the island, summarising the key results of the research project and offering a digest of the current state of knowledge for those periods not covered in depth by the project. Several themes are carried through the narrative: the design and use of living space, the organisation of the landscape, ways of subsisting and making a living, the treatment of the dead, and the ways in which the inhabitants of South Uist made sense of their world. These themes are brought together in Chapter 11, ‘Time, tradition and change’. The volume ends with a helpful guide to sites to visit – all the more useful, since signage is not well developed and the issue of the future presentation of sites is as yet unresolved – and this is followed by an Appendix giving details of ‘the SEARCH project and beyond’, a list of picture credits, a glossary of South Uist place names, a bibliography (organised on a chapter-by-chapter basis) and an index.
The account is generously illustrated and beautifully written. Targeted at the interested general reader, it is informative without being patronising, and various engaging characters are encountered on the way, including ‘Beaker bunny’, ‘Cill Pheadair Kate’, the man who stole the Clan Ranald stone and, of course, the now-infamous Cladh Hallan mummies. The success with which it has engaged its audience can be gauged by its very healthy sales, especially in the Western Isles: the local community is delighted to see its archaeology being given the care and attention it deserves, and to see the results being disseminated so effectively.
In terms of period coverage, the account is thinnest for the earliest periods – the Mesolithic and Neolithic – whose traces (other than the Neolithic chambered cairns) tended to elude the investigators. The writers’ opinion about whether there was a Mesolithic presence varies from the cautious (pp 26–7) to the more confident (p 190); their confidence now appears to be supported by evidence from Northton, where early AMS dates are associated with a chipped stone assemblage. Discussion of the Neolithic focuses on the chambered cairns; and here, perhaps, a widening of the discussion to cover a broader Scottish picture, and not just the Orcadian bit of it, would have been useful. Discussion of Neolithic settlement relies heavily on evidence from Eilean Domhnuill on North Uist and that is no criticism, since one cannot describe what has not yet been found.
The fieldwork project was not able to add a huge amount to the record of Beaker activity in the Western Isles, although settlement material was found at Sligeanach and at Cladh Hallan (and will be published fully in due course); but the book’s main contribution to Beaker period archaeology is to emphasise the abundance and quality of Beaker settlement evidence in the Western Isles (presented in map form in figure 18). As the late Derek Simpson’s forthcoming magnum opus on his Northton excavations will demonstrate, the Western Isles have some of the best-preserved evidence for Beaker houses in western Europe.
The volume’s strongest sections are those dealing with the Bronze Age settlement at Cladh Hallan, and the Iron Age, Pictish, Viking and Norse settlements variously represented at Dun Vulan, Cill Pheadair and Bornais (not forgetting the wonderfully-preserved Pictish square cairn at Cille Pheadair, whose occupant, ‘Cill Pheadair Kate’, was shown not to have had a diet rich in seafood). One of the many strengths of the book, however, is that it continues its rich narrative through the centuries, with a nice mix of historical and archaeological evidence for the Medieval and later periods. The weaving-together of various prose styles has been well done by Mike Parker Pearson, who lends the book his own, inimitable style.
The output by the authors (and by others involved in the project) is very impressive, with thirteen other books already published and seven in the pipeline. This must represent one of the most significant research programmes ever to have been carried out in Scotland, and it is to the credit of those responsible for it that it has communicated its results so well. Its care to relate archaeology to the current inhabitants of the Western Isles is also a major point in its credit: it underlines the importance of archaeology as ‘one of those primary keys which can unlock stories and secrets long forgotten, and turn them into a resource that will be of value to the local and more global community for the millennia to come’ (p 196).
The book also lays bare the stark challenges facing the precious archaeological resource of the Western Isles: the relentless advance of coastal erosion, exacerbated by ever-worsening weather patterns, and the equally destructive work of Beaker bunny and his/her mates, whose burrowing on the machair is turning that ‘rich treasure-house of 4,000 years of unwritten history’ into a ‘Swiss cheese’. The real challenge now is to work out a strategy that maximises information gain before it is too late. The recent discovery of a Late Neolithic structure at An Dorlinn, perched vulnerably on a small knoll and subject to this winter’s storms, is an urgent reminder that we must act fast.
Review Submitted: November 2005
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