It is my pleasure to introduce a guest post, by Dr Helen Green, who has recently completed a ground-breaking and important PhD thesis on the topic of ‘Renewable Energy and the Historic Environment: An Analysis of Policy and Practice in Scotland’. Helen is a post-doctoral researcher who, amongst other things, is currently advising the archaeology department in Glasgow (where I am based) on our impact case-studies for the next REF (Research Excellence Framework 2021), and so this blog post comes from a place of being immersed in the process and scrutinising potentially impactful research such as ‘urban prehistory’. REF involves a lot of crap for academics, but at least the requirement to evidence the impact our research has on society concentrates minds and gives a certain credibility to such activities. There are some nice things written here about the stuff I do, but ultimately Helen’s message is that there is a strategic context for this type of public engagement research, and academic checks and balances are in place. I am delighted that Helen sees potential in my work…..
Urban Prehistory and Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy
by Helen Green
With this guest contribution I would like to take a step back and consider the work of the urban prehistorian from a slightly broader perspective. In particular, I aim to contextualise it, and outline its importance from a strategic point of view: where we are going as a discipline, and what we are aiming to accomplish together. To this end, I want chip in a few thoughts about how urban prehistory sits in relation to Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy, a sector-wide collaboration aimed at focusing and integrating the work we do to support the contribution archaeology makes to society.
Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy
Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy was launched in 2015, with the overriding aim of fostering inclusion and collaboration in Scotland’s archaeology. It was produced in response to issues, such as a sense of fragmentation in the sector, but developed into a forward-looking, collaborative framework for trying to improve archaeology’s contribution to society. The committee is chaired by Prof Steve Driscoll from Archaeology at Glasgow University, but includes representatives from across the world of Scottish archaeology, including Historic Environment Scotland, Archaeology Scotland, local council archaeologists, the commercial sector, and the third sector. Delivering the Strategy’s aims is a crucial strand in the work we do in Archaeology at the University of Glasgow.
Perhaps the Strategy’s most central and challenging aspiration is to work towards ‘a Scotland where archaeology is for everyone’. However, the Strategy also outlines several more specific aims, which include ‘delivering archaeology’, ‘encouraging greater engagement’, ‘enhancing understanding’, ‘caring and protecting’ and ‘innovation and skills’. I want to consider how urban prehistory and related work is making an important contribution to fulfilling these aims, through a focus on engagement in particular and the ethos of inclusion in general.
Urban Prehistory Encourages Greater Engagement
A strategic aim identified in a Historic Scotland report in 2012 (see sources) stated that one of the priorities of any strategy for the sector was to look at ‘how the output from archaeology can be made accessible even more readily and quickly for the purposes of education and interpretation and public display as well as for academic consumption’.
For a long time, the main outputs expected from archaeological fieldwork and research, other than a few shiny monographs and webpages, were dry factual ‘data structure reports’. Even when these are helpfully made freely available on portals such as this one, these are technical documents that are largely inaccessible to non-experts. Academic publications are also problematic, written for an academic audience, and often stuck behind a paywall. There is a great deal of interest in archaeology in Scotland, and some excellent work is being done to make fresh research and excavation reports accessible, through outreach and social media for example, but much more can always be done – and for this reason the Strategy aims to encourage the sector to do better on this issue.
The first aspiration in encouraging greater engagement in the Strategy is:
To encourage creative and collaborative archaeological activities, developing better ways of engaging people with the process and results
One example of this kind of approach is Burning the Circle, a public engagement project held on the island of Arran three times since 2013, which involved the construction of timber monuments to give insight into the process of their creation, which prehistorians such as Colin Richards argue may have been more what they were actually all about, than the finished ‘product’. This is then followed by ‘ritually’ burning them down, to better understand how the archaeological record is formed – and at the same time, to create a spectacular and memorable experience for the general public, which may even reflect an experience people shared thousands of years ago.
This work has been carried out by the urban prehistorian in collaboration with organisations, such as Northlight Heritage (in the form of Gavin MacGregor), the National Trust for Scotland, and Arran Ranger Service, and widely publicised with the results shared on social media (@TeamBuildNBurn) and blogs. This innovative way of doing things results in not only a fascinating and engaging experience, but this experience may well echo that of people in prehistoric Scotland, who were surely just as fascinated with timber and fire as anyone.
This activity is having other impacts, for instance opening up conversations about ways that people living on Arran could benefit more from the amazing prehistoric monuments and archaeology they have around them. Changing the ways people think about the places they live, and providing opportunities for social benefit = research impact. As the photo above shows, building prehistoric-style monuments is also a great outdoor learning experience, utilising the ‘green gym’.
Other creative and collaborative work of the urban prehistorian has included guided walks in Glasgow, Kilbirnie and Crieff, aimed at bringing to life monuments and prehistoric traces in urban settings that are often no longer visible, informing people and challenging them to see these urban landscapes in different ways. Details of these walks have then been published on the UP blog, bringing these sites and places to more people.
The second strategic objective in encouraging greater engagement is:
To maximise the role archaeology can play in learning for people of all ages, benefiting from everyone’s contribution towards valuing, understanding and promoting our past
One neglected archaeological resource in Scotland which the urban prehistorian has helped bring to light is the remains of the past found in the construction of Scotland’s schools. Often the grounds of a school have hidden traces of a very different world in that site’s past – the potential is clear for an immensely valuable educational resource for use in those schools, literally on their doorstep.
Preliminary research by GU student Mar Roige Oliver has identified over 60 new-build schools in Scotland (post-2000) where excavations and evaluations in advance of construction found archaeology.
But teachers, even if they were made aware of these discoveries (which they almost never are), cannot always make use of this resource by themselves, and archaeologists can and should facilitate better communication and start to explore how these discoveries might impact on the life and fabric of new schools buildings and communities. This was the subject of a lecture Kenny gave recently.
It is sometimes said that archaeology is a largely middle-class pursuit – it shouldn’t be, and, potentially, engaging children and young people through learning could instil a pride in, and passion for, local heritage in more people in society.
A good example of what can be done is the urban prehistorian’s engagement with Ally Beckett of Northlight Heritage, who worked with SSE and the teachers at the school to help build a timber circle in the grounds of Strathearn Community Campus based on Ally’s excavations at Pittentian. Within a short space of time, the circle was already in use for learning, teaching and performance in the school – embedded in the life of the community and as this photo below shows, it looks as good today as it did when built in 2015.
The strategy’s final objective for greater engagement in archaeology in Scotland is:
To increase and improve the presentation and interpretation of archaeological information
Staying with the idea of schools as a central part of communities, and a fruitful place for engagement with archaeology, an excellent example of encouraging greater engagement by improving the presentation and interpretation of archaeological information can be found in the campus with the timber circle, Crieff High School. Here, a new information panel was designed by the urban prehistorian and Steve Timoney (UHI Perth College), to presence and celebrate hidden prehistory in and around the grounds. In this case, the archaeology is the cropmark Broich cursus monument, remnants of which still run beneath the school buildings and playground. (Cursus monuments are an enigmatic and little-known type of Neolithic monument (dating to the fourth millennium BC), in most cases ploughed flat and known only from aerial photography.)
This is part of the ongoing creation of an archaeology trail (the timber circle mentioned above was phase 1), an innovative project drawing on cropmark evidence, pre-school build excavations and historical records, to bring ‘invisible’ archaeology in and around the campus back to life. Despite the massive impact that these sites and monuments once had on prehistoric communities, little remains to be seen nowadays, and so without the work of archaeologists not only studying these academically, but helping to presence them in the heart of communities, the cursus monument and other monuments of Crieff would be all but unknown. It takes imagination, and persistence, to bring these back to life, but having a cursus beneath one’s town or village can alter perception of a place by adding a real sense of deep time.
During the unveiling of this new noticeboard, Eila MacQueen of Archaeology Scotland said that this initiative (two further boards and a trail are forthcoming) will share the ‘wonderful story’ of the Broich Cursus with both the local community and visitors. She also noted that the creation of this trail fulfils all five objectives of Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy, so this shows I’m not alone in seeing this work through the lens of strategy.
Acknowledgements / sources: the HS source that was mentioned in the text regarding aspirations for the strategy was Historic Scotland (2012) A Review of the Archaeology Function (no longer available online). For more on Scotland’s cursus monuments, see Brophy, K. 2015. Reading Between the Lines: The Neolithic Cursus Monuments of Scotland. London: Routledge. And Colin Richards’ work on stone circles can be found here: Richards, C. p4-5 Interpreting Stone Circles. In C. Richards (ed.), Building the Great Stone Circles of the North, 2-30. Oxford: Oxbow Books. The information on school archaeology came from Kenny Brophy and Mar Roige Oliver. You can follow post-excavation progress for the Carnoustie excavation by following @CarnoustiePx on twitter.