Our knowledge of the past comes from 2 main resources: archaeology and historical documents (including oral records).
However, neither gives us absolutes. Historical documents comes from the hands of people, some of whom may have a bias about what they are writing upon. If they are sincere and trying their best to be accurate and truthful, then they may be unconsciously swayed by their private prejudices. A 16th century cartographer will do their best to be accurate, but expects sea monsters to exist and will include them, along with rumoured lands and errors resulting from being unable to accurately map longitude at sea. Fine art may be painted to present naïve idyllic scenes (blushing shepherdesses evading amorous goat-herds in floral meadows) or flattering portraits in which a middle-aged dignitary looks 25 again, full-haired and a good foot taller. Historians must work like detectives, meticulously inspecting mountains of documents to access what the reality might have been. This article focuses on archaeological evidence.
Archaeology places physical evidence of the past into your hands: a workman’s tool, a baby’s shoe, a family’s crockery set. The only absolute information it gives us is that, for example, someone in the past in the vicinity was in possession of a crockery set and someone somewhere made a crockery set. How can an archaeologist gain more social and anthropological information from an unearthed tool, and what are the limitations?
I’m going to show you 2 archaeological sites. One is the famous Viking site of Coppergate in York (Richards, 1991), where a huge amount of household and trade material was unearthed, along with beautifully preserved midden contents. We’ll then look at a very ancient Neanderthal site of Payre (Hardy and Moncel, 2011), dated 125,000 to 250,000 years ago, where a great deal of evidence was gathered from a very small amount of fragile material. How accurate conclusions were is something you can decide.
Fig 1 The Coppergate Viking dig of 1979-1981, York. A true community venture watched by the world.
The archaeological site of Coppergate is now marked by the hugely popular Jorvik Viking Centre and the Coppergate shopping centre . Dug from 1979-1981, it became a high profile community rescue dig as related by lead archaeologist Richard Hall in his account of the excavation (Hall, 1984). He describes how York Council had scant interest in archaeological heritage at the time, and were more interested in urban development, wishing to have an old sweet factory demolished at the site and replaced with modern architecture. Hall and fellow archaeologist Peter Addyman, aware that Viking material was in the area, first battled the local council for time to excavate, but the council was not interested, wishing to get the demolition done and building started. Local pressure built up and the now world famous York Archaeological Trust was set up on scant finances (which went on to defend medieval York from being knocked down and turned into Milton Keynes). Eventually the council relented, giving the archaeologists a small window of time to dig, and with severely low funding Hall and Addyman began to excavate, helped by volunteers from all over the community. School children, students, prisoners and volunteers from all sections of York society rolled up their sleeves, grabbed a trowel and joined in. To everyone’s delight, beautifully preserved Viking streets were found, of age 865 AD onwards (Richards, 1991. 34) filled with artifacts. The richness of the site and the community effort caused Coppergate to hit the world news and be flooded with visitors wanting to watch the dig (Hall, 1984). The council gave Hall and Addyman 2 years to excavate the area and help with funding came from Scandinavia. So much material was brought up from Coppergate that even in 2013, the York Archaeological Trust hasn’t yet managed to process it all.
I had the pleasure, at the end of the first year of my BSc Archaeology, to process a bag of detrius from a Coppergate Viking toilet, with sieves and a pair of tweezers. I loved it would you believe, finding lots of little coprolites (poo), eggs from intestinal and garden worms, bits of beetle, seeds, charred grains, charred nut shells, used ‘bum-wipes’ (moss) and charred hazelnut shell fragments. Much of this needed looking at under a microscope and these are my personal photos:
Fig. 2 Here’s my work desk with sieved Viking cess-pit and little dishes for sorting.
Fig.3 Here are some Viking coprolites (poo). There was no smell and they are about 2 cms across at most.
Fig.4 Here are some sloe pips and broken charred hazelnut shells. Domestic rubbish appears to have gone in the cess-pit too.
Fig.5 debris sorted you can see that coprolites (in the big dish) make up most of the artifacts.
Other finds from Coppergate included tableware, cloth, shoes, worked bone, worked antler, butchered bone, house foundations, copper working, iron working and even a child’s ice-skates. It gives a rich picture of the past, but I will focus on my cess-pit sample and the information that can be drawn from it.
Well, we can say for sure that people’s faeces ended up in a cut hole in the ground. We can see that at least one person who’s faeces ended up in the cut hole had intestinal worms. But who did it come from and how many people used this cess pit? We may assume it belonged to one family of parents and children, a common picture of the past, but not every household is a family. The cess-pitt may have been used by several households, even by passing travellers, or a sneaky person from up the street who’s own pit was full. So we can’t identify who was using the cess-pit, only that it is in the same context (strata) as the exposed Viking homes. We know it is Viking.
There are also signs of cooked foods. The nearest house if it has a hearth is even stronger evidence. In the sample are charred grains and charred hazelnut shells. Can we say this is evidence of cooked pulses in the diet? Further analysis of the faeces could confirm this, but until that analysis we must consider if the nuts were charred by another means ie a bonfire lit on outside on fallen hazelnuts. Also, some of the charred nut shells have been bitten open by mice. Why would people cook spoiled/empty hazelnut shells? Here we enter some real speculation: either they cooked a pile of them without checking which had been nibbled by mice, or they were sorted and nibbled shells thrown into the fire instead of on it. Were they too hungry to reject nuts that had been nibbled by pests? But… what if there was an outside bonfire lit, with fallen hazelnuts being on the ground where it was lit, by pure chance. The nibbled nut shells may support that. Is there only one reason for the charred nibbled hazelnut shells?
I’m going to leave Coppergate there, you’ll probably be glad to hear. As you can see, the more evidence there is, the more complex things can get. Much is answered by a wealth of artifacts, but also much more questions arise. Millions of words of interpretation could be written on that one cess-pit sample alone, never mind the entire site. An archaeologist must maintain theory of mind at all times to keep things under some control. People can end up writing entire Phds on charred nibbled hazelnut shells in a Coppergate cess-pit (my apologies if any of the readers has!)
Now we will go back to at least 125,000 years ago, to a Neanderthal archaeology site of Payre at the Rhone Valley in France (see fig.6), excavated from 1990 to 2002. During occupation it was a cave that has now collapsed and Neanderthal occupation took place there for over 100,000 years, it is believed.
Fig.6 Payre site location (Hardy and Moncel, 2011)
A site as rich as Coppergate is rare, and it is ‘only’ around 1000 years old. Human debris decays quickly in the ground. To find any human debris from 125,000 + years ago is remarkable, but what there is will be scant. Most organic material like wood and skin will be lost to time, but bone may fossilise. Stone tools stay pretty much in their original condition and hearths will leave a stain and some debris, because charred plant material survives better than raw plant material. Caves provide good preservation, but open air sites will be very unlikely to preserve any evidence. Therefore, a typical Neanderthal site will usually provide stone tools, butchered animal bone, possibly human bone and hearth stains, and be ina cave. It no wonder that a traditional picture has built up of Neanderthals being limited to a meat-only diet, unable to work wood except into spears, huddled naked over fires, unable to craft shelters, unable to live in anything but caves as ice-age weather extremes batter their robust bodies. But does this picture come from reality or from the bias of preservation?
Payre is an important site because the stone tools themselves provided deeper answers than expected. The 180 stone tools from Payres may have looked like barren evidence, telling us of nothing but Neanderthal knapping technology, but Hardy and Moncel (2011) looked at the working edges of these blades for any surviving debris from what the tools were being used on. This is called microwear analysis, or use-wear analysis, with tool edges observed under microscopes for debris or wear patterns. To their surprise, and to the surprise of the archaeological community, they found that these tools had been used mainly to work wood. Instead of Neanderthals being disinterested in wood, they were widely utilizing the material. For what? Traps? Shelters? Art? Jewelry? Footwear? We don’t know what they were making, but we know they were very busy working lots of wood as a major activity in their camps and this opens up possibilities.
Another surprise was that they were also working starchy grains with the tools. This is likely to mean that they were eating starchy foods, disproving previous claims of Neanderthals living on full meat diets. In fact, by processing starch grains, they may have been producing flour.
Other tools showed that the Neanderthals at Payre were working fish and bird bone. Another assumption about Neanderthals is that they lacked the intelligence to catch fast moving small prey like birds, and that they lacked the imagination to work out they could eat aquatic foods, or change their habits. There’s never been evidence of inferior brains in Neanderthals though. Its just a presumption as people work out why they are now extinct. However, deeper analysis of the stone tools at Payres has now shown us that Neanderthals could get their hands on birds and were perfectly capable of finding a wide variety of food sources.
Fig 7 Stone working on starchy grains revealed under a microscope
Fig 8 Wood processing revealed under a microscope
It seems that from a far smaller amount of physical evidence, interpretation is actually a lot clearer. There is less material to raise questions and obfuscate matters, but prehistorical archaeologists require as much, if not more, theory of mind when they interpret ancient artifacts, because the less the evidence, the greater the free rein the imagination gets. Preservation bias creates a false picture of life in the distant past (ie archaeologists concluding that Neanderthals were not able to construct shelters, or only lived in caves, or only ate meat). But also, any Neanderthal archaeology is so treasured, so valuable, that it can be forgotten that the artifacts don’t represent the behaviour of an entire species. Those small artifacts represent only the behaviour of the individual who deposited the artifacts, and only their behaviour on the day, or moment, of the deposition.
One example I used to think of was a lecture hall full of 120 archaeology students. Its full of people, clothes, multifaiths, fashions, and is a coming together of complete individuals (particularly so with archaeology students, they sport Merlin beards, Indiana Jones hats, magnificent all weather boots, flowing coats, multi-coloured hair, Viking hair, Palaeolithic hair, Edwardian moustaches….) Sorry, I could go on forever. Then they leave the room and leave their trace there.
Only a few things are left behind: 3 ball point pens, 1 scrunchie, 5 sweet wrappers, 6 tissues, a plastic panda that broke off a keyring and a star trek collectors card. How much does that collection tell us about what went on in that room and what kind of people were there? It tells us very little.
125,000 years later, future archaeologists are digging in a forest which now lies where the university once was. All memory of the university and our society is gone. They find the foundations, luckily in the region of the lecture hall. All the wood from the seats and the building are gone. There’s only stone and concrete left. All the things they left behind are gone except for 2 things: the transparent, soil impacted plastic pipe of one of the pens and the head of the panda keyring, amazingly with some of one eye still intact.
What can those archaeologists work out? I’d guess they’d find the plastic pipe of the pen a mystery. They will probably note that both the pen and panda are plastic and diagnose it as a Plastic Age site. Lots of the pen pipe things have been found but no-one has worked out what they are. One person suggests they are for blowing through, to make sound, or play a part in some kind of a ritual. One hippie archaeologist says they are for blowing through to create an altered state and are symbolic of the journey through the tunnels of light that accompany altered states. He thinks hallucinogens were probably put in them. As for the panda, they can’t recognise this extinct creature, but recognise it as an animal. It is decided it is most likely a totem for a prey animal, carried around for good luck, and believed to have magic qualities. The hippy archaeologist suggests that the pipe owners were shamans who transformed into the strange panda animal in the pipe rituals.
Well, the above is what happens if palaeo-archaeologists apply absolutely no theory of mind. Absolute self discipline, self awareness, self control, are required in interpreting ancient material and I think Hardy and Moncel provide an excellent level of credible interpretation at Payre. Credible interpretation is possible with a disciplined, thoughtful mind. You can read their freely available article at: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0023768
I shall now leave Viking York, Pleistocene France, and the distant future and come back to 2013. I hope you found this little archaeological journey interesting, and picked up on how complex it can be to interpret physical archaeology. One of the surprises that archaeological training gave me was increased self-awareness. You can’t deduce anything from artifacts without having a good long hard look at yourself. You can’t begin to be reliable until you know yourself. And you can’t get anywhere sensible with artifacts if you let your mind runaway with itself uncontrolled. You also can’t say many absolutes. You can’t just announce to the public that ‘Neanderthals could only eat meat’ or ‘Each Viking family would have its own personal cess-pit and that is how we can tell how some families ate compared to other families’. You need to be more humble than that, humble to the artifacts. And that’s a good attitude to have to learning in general. There are no absolutes, there is no finished topic, its all on-going and the mind must stay open and flexible, and self-aware.
Hall R (1984) The Viking Dig: excavations at York The Bodley Head Ltd
Hardy B L and Moncel M-H (2011) ‘Neanderthal use of fish, mammals, birds, starchy plants and wood 125-250,000 years ago’, PLoS ONE 6(8): e23768. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0023768[online] http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0023768 accessed 05-04-2013
Richards J D (1991) Viking Age England. Gloucestershire: Tempus Publishing Limited