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Dwelling among the Monuments – the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness, Orkney edited by Colin Richards
Cambridge, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research Monographs. 2005. xxii + 397 pages, 399 figures, 29 tables. ISBN: 1-902937-18-X. (£40.00)

This report presents the results of major excavations at the Grooved Ware settlement at Barnhouse, Mainland, Orkney, and more restricted work at nearby Barnhouse Odin and the passage grave at Maeshowe. The discovery through field walking of the settlement at Barnhouse, adjacent to the Stones of Stenness, has made a major contribution to our understanding of late Neolithic Orkney. Colin Richards’ advocacy of the utility of field walking in an Orcadian context, in the face of much scepticism among many Scottish archaeologists, deserves nothing but the highest praise. This volume more than vindicates his position.

While there can be no doubting the importance of the work, the form of its presentation challenges many of the accepted norms for excavation reports. Many of the challenges are a considered attempt to create an improved format for documenting excavations. Others appear less so and seem more the result of indifference to readers with different concerns from those of the authors. Essentially, the format whereby data presentation is followed by interpretation is here largely reversed. Indeed, the interpretative narratives dominate the volume. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach. My misgivings about its effectiveness in this instance centre around three major aspects. The first concerns the quality of the recovered data and aspects of its presentation in this volume. The second involves the authors’ willingness to set up false positions in the work of others in order to give their own approaches additional radicalism. And thirdly, I am unconvinced by some of the interpretations offered, both at a micro and macro level.

The village at Barnhouse lies close to the shore of the Loch of Harray adjacent to the major monuments of Stones of Stenness, Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe. Within the excavated area it consists of eleven houses, largely similar in layout and construction, together with two other structures with different plans. The houses appear to have been built in a concentric layout with an inner and outer ring. Just how many houses were in use at any one time cannot be determined as the site is heavily plough-damaged with the consequent destruction of the relevant stratigraphical relationships. Further, the acidic nature of the soil meant that bone and shell were almost wholly absent from the recovered assemblages. Thus, the importance of the site comes more from its location and perceived relationships with adjacent monuments than from what the recovered material can tell us about its inhabitants and their daily lives.

A measure of the destruction caused by ploughing is provided by the remark that part of House 10 ‘was relatively well-preserved with the walls standing to a height of 0.26m.’ (p. 98). In many areas of Britain, walls standing a quarter of a metre high would undoubtedly be regarded as well preserved but in the context of Orkney, where walls standing 1-2 metres or more in height are not unusual, the Barnhouse walls are rather ephemeral. And this, of course, has made the stratigraphy extremely limited. Certainly, the poor preservation is acknowledged:

House 7: ‘The physical structure of the outer wall of this house was almost completely destroyed.’ (p. 88). ‘It was difficult to convincingly assign deposits to the occupation of this house.’ (p. 91).

Later houses: ‘Because of their high stratigraphic positions these buildings have incurred considerable damage from the plough. Indeed, in virtually every case, the exception being House 4, the structural remains were visible directly below the plough soil and occupation surfaces had consistently been scoured. As a consequence, the amount of stratified material culture that may be assigned to these contexts with any confidence is minimal.’ (p. 112).

House 4: ‘Because of the dilapidation of this building there is very little which can be said regarding either its architecture or practices occurring within it.’ (p. 115).

Similar quotations could be provided from the descriptions of Houses 1, 5a-d, 6 and 9. Together they emphasise the difficulties the excavators faced in identifying meaningful contexts with real integrity across the site. It is clear that the overall quality of the recovered data is low. But the widespread and commendable acknowledgement of the problems that this poses is nowhere matched by a comparable discussion of the constraints such complications impose upon the quality and range of interpretation. Indeed, the situation is further muddied by the creation of the ‘Late Neolithic Orcadian house’, a type that needs to be supported by argument not assumption.

Nor is the presentation of the recovered data designed to aid those wishing to explore the evidential base for the interpretations offered. Clearly, much information is available only in the archive but neither its content nor its location is provided in the report. Indeed, except for brief mentions in some of the specialists’ reports the reader would be unaware of its existence. This is particularly a problem because most contexts remain without any description in the report. Those that are get only a level of characterisation sufficient to support the wider interpretation that they are a part of. Nowhere in the volume can one obtain a description of individual contexts together with a list of the material culture recovered from them, even in the case of contexts that are central to various interpretations. Failing to provide the reader with either a guide to the archive or an intelligent understanding of the nature and contents of key contexts seems to me to fall below the standards we should expect from major excavation reports.

The difficulties inherent in this general approach are further enhanced by the style of the graphic presentations. Many of these are small in scale, challenging all but those with perfect vision, and difficult to locate in terms of the overall settlement plan. Recording seems to have been based on a notional grid structure across the site but this is not explained in the text nor shown on a general site plan. Both plans and sections use a minimum of symbols with most contexts identified only by a number and lines indicating their extent. This makes them very difficult to read given that many of the contexts identified in the graphics do not figure at all in the accompanying text. On some occasions, the reverse is true and the text is not supported by the illustrations. For instance, there is a reference in the description of House 2 to ‘a thin layer of yellow clay [175] incorporating stone slabs [169], which ran from the central area of the house and sealed the eastern hearth’ (p. 132) but neither appear in the section across the hearth (p. 136: fig 5.10). On yet other occasions, the text and illustrations combine to create straightforward confusion. In the description of House 2, the following remarks occur: ‘Two oval pits [810 & 802/934] were also grouped in this area. The first [816] contained a red ashy fill and no artefacts. The second [802/934] displayed greater complexity; …’ (p. 172). Is the first pit in these comments 810 or 816? Pit 816 has already been described, which suggests that it is 810 but 816 is oval on plan whereas 810 is round (p. 166: fig 6.15). In contrast, pit 802/934 is not identified on plan but a section is published (p. 171: fig 6.25) but without reference to context/feature 934 or conforming closely to the written description of the pit’s contents. Overall, it is clear that no-one critically reviewed the text and illustrations in terms of how easy they are to use by a reader not intimately aware of the site or the recording systems.

The presentation of excavation data from major sites is by no means straightforward and it would be foolish to pretend that there is any demonstrably correct approach. No doubt equivalents of the infelicities outlined above could be found in other large reports. But I know few reports that erect as many false targets for destruction as this one. This volume opens with a brief exegesis on the excavation report in which commonplaces are presented as insights. Most of us have, for example, accepted that the description of an excavated context inevitably involves interpretation on our part. We do not need such truisms trotted out as justification for a different style of excavation report. Similarly, we are offered a short homily on the need for greater rigour in describing the items of stone furniture found in many Orcadian Grooved Ware houses (p. 123-25). Richards does not, for example, like the use of the term ‘dresser’ that Childe first used to describe the structures opposite the doors in the houses at Skara Brae. He does acknowledge that ‘there is no doubt of its role as shelving for the display or containment of objects’ – a rather good definition of a dresser I would have thought. But his concern is with the transformation in our perceptions if Childe had chosen instead to label them ‘alter’ (sic). As a general point, this is a straightforward statement but Richards then seems to ignore the issues he has raised. In a remarkable piece of hommage to Childe he refers throughout the volume to the individual houses at Skara Brae pejoratively as ‘hut’ despite the quality of their preservation being infinitely superior to the structures he readily labels houses at Barnhouse. And what are we to make of the use of the term ‘house’ to label House 2, a structure that he admits ‘may not actually have been inhabited but used at particular times for ceremonial, or other restricted practices’ (p. 130)? Might not our perceptions have been different if he had chosen ‘temple’, ‘ceremonial house’ or ‘cult house’? Nor does Richards do his arguments any favours by drawing unreasonable implications from the comments of others. When Davidson and Henshall rightly suggested that the overall design and quality of masonry in Maeshowe makes it ‘one of the outstanding architectural achievements of western Europe’ they were not indicating, as Richards egregiously claims, ‘that the remaining passage graves are all the same’ (p. 229).

This approach seems rooted in the importance that the main authors attach to interpretation; providing a record of the excavation must, one supposes, be the role of the archive. It seems that the interpretative narrative is how we must judge this report if we wish to reflect the authors’ priorities. There are within the narrative some interesting ideas, not least the suggestion that Stenness may be an unfinished monument with the individual stones erected at different times. Of course, many of the ideas used to create the overall narratives integrating Barnhouse and the surrounding monuments have been aired in print before. But what we have not had previously are the detailed interpretations of Barnhouse. Here I find myself disappointed. Perhaps I had failed to appreciate just how little of the structures actually survived or that, apart from the pottery, the material culture assemblages are rather impoverished.

What is certainly clear is that the interpretation of Barnhouse relies almost entirely upon ‘architecture’ and pottery. Moreover, many of the key images in that interpretation are derived from perceptions that originate at Skara Brae, even if this is only once explicitly acknowledged:

‘In the context of Barnhouse, where the majority of houses were represented by just a few courses of masonry, the importance of having comparison in the well-preserved settlement of Skara Brae cannot be overstated. The ability to walk round Skara Brae and enter houses standing over two metres in height, complete with internal furniture, is not only a privilege but allows an informed interpretation of House 2 to be offered.’ (p. 145).

Unfortunately, the houses at Skara Brae with walls standing over 2 metres high and their internal furniture are not from the early phase that is comparable to Barnhouse. And our knowledge of the early phase at Skara Brae is altogether more sketchy than that for the later one. How much this conflation of phases matters depends upon what significance one attaches to the design changes in the layout of the houses between phases. But given Richards’ clear belief that all building change is symbolically charged, this does seem a rather cavalier attitude to the data from Skara Brae. Further, as our discovery of Orcadian Grooved Ware settlements increases, the perceptions of extreme conformity arising from Skara Brae and Rinyo are beginning to weaken. It is particularly clear that the uniformity that is such a feature of the phase 2 houses at Skara Brae is nowhere near as well represented in the houses at Barnhouse. Perhaps it is not present either in the early phase at Skara Brae but we have insufficient evidence to know.

It is this lack of uniformity within the houses that makes many of the micro interpretations more suspect than might otherwise have been the case. Some of the sections, shallow though they are, seem to me open to a different reading from, or at least do not convincingly support, the interpretation offered. Generalisation inevitably becomes more problematic: ‘the hearth was always the primary element of house construction’ (p. 125) even though 8 pages earlier we have been told that the hearth of House 11 is not the primary element there. Attempts to offer more evocative pictures suffer from the same lack of fit with the evidence. Take, for example, Richards’ description of someone entering House 2:

‘Initially it is difficult to see into the west half of the building that remains partly obscured by a line of flagstone partitioning running across the centre of the building. As the eyes gradually become accustomed to the dimly lit interior a large hearth is visible directly ahead. Grooved ware vessels may be standing within the fireplace and meat roasting on a ‘spit’ arrangement supported by the flanking uprights.’ (p.145).

This is an admirable piece of reconstruction but its details do not fit either the excavated evidence or the isometric reconstruction of House 2 offered in fig 5.29 (p. 150). There the flagstone partitioning is shown as less than 1 metre high so that any adult standing beside it would have had an unobstructed view into the western half of the house. Similarly, the flanking uprights that are supposed to support a ‘spit’ arrangement are shown as effectively the same height as the hearth edges and in accordance with the excavated evidence; they are simply not high enough to support a spit.

For all his concern with symbolism and meaning, Richards’ interpretations are underpinned by some doubtful and undiscussed assumptions. Key among these is his assumption that this is the ordinary settlement of a farming community that is only incidentally located in an area that is subsequently filled with ritual monuments. This may well be a correct interpretation but it needs arguing not assuming. Barnhouse is clearly linked by Richards to Maeshowe but the pottery evidence suggests links with the slightly more distant passage grave at Quanterness. What this means in terms of the settlement is never discussed. Equally disturbing is the apparent belief that prehistoric people invariably dispose of their tools at the point of use. This quaint supposition, together with weak artefactual evidence, is used to create some quite absurd suggestions about manufacturing processes within the village. My personal favourite is the suggestion of macehead manufacture in House 2 on the basis of a single fragment of banded mudstone and a stone that from the description in the text (there is no illustration or catalogue description) is not even conclusively part of the tool-kit for making maceheads. The contexts of both pieces, in so far as one understands them, do nothing to support the proposed interpretation.

Indeed, the artefact assemblage is not well served by this report. We are told that the pottery, the principal recovered assemblage, numbered over 6000 sherds and that some 23% of them were decorated. The report on this material by Andrew Jones is woeful. There is no catalogue and the decorative schemes are never defined. We are referred to some figures as illustrating particular schemes but the nearest we get to any definitions is when we are told that ‘decorative scheme 11 … is superficially related to 13, and uses both incisions and a serpentine cordon’ (p. 273). With nearly 1300 decorated sherds I would have expected more that 150 to be illustrated. And the absence of basic descriptions makes it impossible to understand the significance of the wider statements. Much is made of the distributions of different fabric types but there appears to be significant overlap between the types and without more precise information it is difficult to make an independent judgement. At one point we are told that the number of vessels represented by the assemblage may be ‘as low as c. 200-300’ (p. 39) but a later figure (p. 268: fig 11.10) appears to involve c. 800 vessels. Like so much else in this pottery report the discrepancy remains unexplained.

Overall then, I found myself deeply frustrated by this report. The dominance of narrative over documentation does not permit an acceptable balance between the two to be established. All too often there is not enough information to support the interpretations. Nor does the lack of an index help the reader find what information is provided. Greater critical rigour and greater concern with the needs of potential readers would have produced a much improved report.

David Clarke
Department of Archaeology
National Museums Scotland

Review Submitted: January 2007

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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