Art and Architecture in Neolithic Orkney – Book Review

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Art and Architecture in Neolithic Orkney: Process, Temporality and Context. Antonia Thomas. Archaeopress. 2016

Caroline Wickham-Jones kindly wrote a detailed review of Art and Architecture in Neolithic Orkney, which was subsequently published in The Orcadian newspaper this week. Caroline writes….

We are all used to reading media snippets about amazing structures and spectacular artefacts from Orkney’s Neolithic past. How refreshing therefore to have a whole book devoted to one aspect in detail. Even more exciting: a book that takes information from our newest and most enigmatic site at Ness of Brodgar, and puts it into context with information from two of our oldest sites: Skara Brae and Maeshowe. Finally, and the icing on the cake, it is readable.

img_1444Art and Architecture in Neolithic Orkney is a handsome volume; it is well illustrated and clearly set out. It is designed to be read from cover to cover but in fact there is a lot of detail here and it also makes for an excellent ‘dipping’ book. The main thrust, as you might guess, is to provide an overview of the amazing suite of decorated stones found within the structures of Neolithic Orkney through detailed studies of these three key sites. Within each site, particular case studies are set out.

It is a comprehensive piece of work, taking us first through a history of the archaeological study of art, and then providing a brief guide to the Neolithic art of Britain and Ireland. This helps to put Orkney art into context, though one cannot help wondering, given the thoroughness of the present research and the ephemeral nature of many of the pieces recorded, whether decorated stones might be under represented outside of Orkney. Many of the pieces here were unknown before Thomas’ research.

We are led deeper into a fascinating detailed consideration of the individual sites. With regard to Skara Brae and Ness of Brodgar a wealth of useful material is provided, including up-to-date breakdowns of the architectural remains and stratigraphy. Even for Maeshowe, a site which you might think had been well published in all its glory, Thomas finds angles and information that have not been presented before.

After this is it time for some serious discussion and analysis. In common with archaeological thought today, Thomas has moved far beyond the old-fashioned ‘Art Historical’ approach and even beyond the ‘Technological/Functional’ approach that was all the rage when I graduated. You won’t find an explanation of ‘meaning’, nor detailed discussions of manufacture, but hopefully any disappointment will be assuaged by learning new ways of thinking about the pieces. Rather than focusing on possible interpretations of Neolithic Art as a sort of code from the past, Thomas teaches us to consider the ways in which it was used and how it may have functioned as part of everyday life.

This is done through three different examinations: first, the processes of incorporating material into Neolithic structures; second, the lifespan (often brief) of art as a visible element; and third the wider context of community and identity in Neolithic Orkney. We are never going to know exactly what the makers of the ‘Brodgar Butterfly’ or the Skara Brae Lozenges meant by them, just as we don’t know what Leonardo intended to convey in the Mona Lisa’s smile, or Banksy with his graffiti. But we can start to think about the roles that these pieces of art played in relationship to their surroundings and those who frequented them.

In this way, Thomas has identified very specific and differing forms of creation and deposition. For me perhaps the most surprising elements are the ways in which design appears to be less important than creation, and existence more important than visibility. Is this indeed ‘art’ as we understand it? Only in the way in which a hidden tattoo or plasterer’s doodle might be so defined.

There is a lot to take in. There is a lot to think about. It is a book that will linger and enrich any exploration of the remains of Neolithic Orkney. The ‘art’ itself is just wonderful, it was clearly an integral part of the lives of our Neolithic ancestors. I can’t help a slight regret that I’m still so far from ‘reading’ it, but I now know so much more about those who tramped the passages and halls of the past. I’m happy.

The book is based on Antonia Thomas’ PhD thesis (itself an exemplary piece of work I am told), and she has done an impressive job, not just in completing the thesis but in producing a publication less than a year after attaining her doctorate. It marks the inauguration of the Archaeology Institute’s Research Publications, judging by the ongoing projects in the Institute one can only wait with excitement for the next volumes in the series. Meanwhile, if you have an interest in the lives of those who lived and farmed in Orkney five thousand years ago, I urge you to go out and buy it.

Caroline Wickham-Jones

For more things archaeology see Caroline’s brilliant blog at http://www.mesolithic.co.uk/


Published by Archaeopress, this publication forms the first in a series by the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and it is available in print and e-format from www.archaeopress.com and is priced at £45 for the paperback and £19 for the eBook.

 

The Utrecht Wreck: Second Cannon Found

The Third Phase of The Utrecht Community Marine Archaeology Project offers an opportunity to get involved in archive research on this intriguing shipwreck.

The crystal clear waters around Orkney hide many wrecks and one of the most intriguing is the wreck of The Utrecht which lies off the island of Sanday.

Built in Rotterdam as The Irene by Glavimans, The Utrecht was a 38-gun frigate that was owned by the Dutch Navy. Several sources (Canmore; Ferguson, 1988; Larn and Larn, 1998; Whittaker, 1998) offer contradictory information regarding the number of cannon on the vessel with numbers ranging from 32 to 44. The first phase of the project can confirm she had 38 cannon comprising twenty-six 12-pounders, four 6-pounders and eight 20pounder carronades.

One of the 12 pounder iron cannons from The Utrecht’s gun deck was discovered earlier this summer in the second phase of this community led archaeology project.

Diving is progressing on the third phase of the project and, following further site investigation, a second cannon was  discovered two weeks ago. Initial investigation confirmed that the find was in fact a 12 pounder iron cannon which most likely originated from the wreck of The Utrecht.

This phase of the project aims to initially record the site extent and condition, building on earlier phases of work undertaken by the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and SULA Diving and offer a platform for community engagement through volunteer programs, displays, talks and online outreach, utilising such mediums as Facebook, Twitter, blogs and YouTube.

image14144The third phase also involves desk research in which the community also have an opportunity to be involved. This will include examining surviving written sources from the late 18th and early 19th Century, The Utrecht’s log book and other sources in order to establish the full story of life on the frigate and fill in the details of the final hours.

If you are interested in being involved with this aspect of the project then please contact Sandra Henry (ORCA Marine Archaeologist and Lecturer) at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

This community project also aims to involve the local diving community through the delivery of training programs such as the Nautical Archaeology Society courses. The project is led by Sandra Henry of ORCA and Kevin Heath of Sula Diving and is supported by Orkney Islands Council.


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