Am Bratach No. 287
September 2015

Book review

by Malcolm Bangor-Jones

Caithness Archaeology: Aspects of Prehistory by Andy Heald and John Barber, Whittles Publishing, Hardback, £20, 176 pages.
This is a story of Caithness’ archaeology: it is not a guidebook in the conventional sense. It refers to many individual sites but the book is really, as the authors admit, a record of what they have learnt during their time exploring the archaeology of Caithness. But it is more than a journal as it is filled with well-informed lively comment and interpretation, a good deal of which is new. A number of issues are raised, especially concerning the preservation and presentation of monuments, and some contentious views are expressed. But above all, it is a book filled with people: those long dead who first investigated the archaeology of Caithness; and the enthusiasts, advocates and obsessives of today.

The Introduction includes an accessible account of the prehistory of Caithness with particular reference to the Yarrows area. It is scattered full of insights especially into the selective impact of intensive agriculture in removing some sites but not others, and the discoveries brought about by recent surveys and new technologies. And there are interesting comments on the creation of the “Pictish people” by historians and archaeologists.

The twelve chapters which follow cover the wide range of prehistoric monuments to be found in Caithness from chambered cairns to the Vikings and includes everything from middens to wells, and from settlements to artefacts.
A major chapter on chambered burial cairns incorporates the experimental work on the construction of these structures undertaken in Caithness. The authors are sceptical about the claims made by others as to the intervisibility of cairns. There is a focus on the ground-breaking work of nineteenth century investigators who did not have to work in today’s regulatory world.

The authors warn that the shape of many cairns has changed since they were constructed, partly due to natural processes but partly due to human intervention. Archaeological sites are now displayed and made accessible to the general public in a way not known in the past, particularly by bodies such as Historic Scotland. Monuments are not only managed and “tidied up” but, to the authors’ concern, presented in a way which simplifies them: complex chronologies are largely ignored in favour of a single period.

The authors suggest that it would be better to improve the education of the public to enable them to understand monuments in all their complexity. Moreover, modifications which include the building of shops or restaurants on ancient monuments are considered to be the acts of vandals. These are strong views and ones which are open to debate.

Those entrusted with the responsibility of managing monuments will no doubt claim that they must cater for a range of interests and that, for some, a day which includes the excitement of a mounted knight in armour, the purchase of a plastic Viking helmet and some tartan shortbread is a good day out. And that is what widening access is about. Moreover to expect public bodies to ignore income-generating opportunities might be considered naïve when there are such pressures on public finances.

A significant chapter covers brochs. The authors point out that the classic broch tower is at one end of a spectrum of complexity, with simple low-walled Atlantic roundhouses at the other and many different structures in between. How many complex roundhouses were brochs is, as the authors suggest, now impossible to know.

As they stress, however, Caithness has more examples of brochs than any other area of Scotland: Caithness is the home of the broch. But a great deal of the work on the Caithness brochs was undertaken in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The artefacts found show that the inhabitants engaged in long-distance trade, crafts and the consumption of high-status goods and materials, including Roman material. Finally, attention is drawn to the condition of the site at Nybster, “the jewel in the broch crown of northern mainland Scotland”, and now suffering from a lack of care and maintenance.

Questions are posed concerning the appropriate way to conserve and present such sites to the public, and how earlier excavations have impacted on what we see today and our interpretation. As the authors suggest, the sites are “markers of the investigative process”. They escape for a moment from Caithness and consider the example of Carn Liath near Golspie which suffered badly from ‘investigations’ in the past, was taken into state care, tidied up and made safe.

The authors are both well-respected figures in the world of archaeology. They have immersed themselves in the archaeology of Caithness, have been involved in a number of initiatives, including the River of Stone Project, and place great store on community involvement.

They have written an important book which campaigns on behalf of the richness and importance of the archaeological sites and landscapes of Caithness, suggesting that the county has become marginalised in recent times in favour of centres such as Orkney. Indeed they claim that Caithness has one of the “richest cultural landscapes in Europe”: it has many well-preserved archaeological sites but very few which are well-presented.

The book is also campaigning in terms of the emphasis placed on the people who have investigated Caithness’s heritage, particularly the work of nineteenth century scholars and enthusiasts. A great deal of attention is placed on re-examining the evidence they left behind. And this attempt to re-personalise the investigative process is applied not just to the work of earlier antiquarians but also to the present-day.

The book is well-written, is not without humour, is rigorous, fully-referenced, incorporates recent academic research and manages to introduce the terminology of the profession in a relatively painless way. It probably helps if the reader has some background knowledge (for instance, what LiDAR is). The book demands concentration but it can be dipped into, a chapter at a time.

It is good to see the support which the work has garnered, including from Caithness & Sutherland Enterprise, and it is good to learn that there are the people in Caithness there to continue the momentum, ranging from primary schools to the Caithness Archaeological Trust. This book marks the new beginning made for the archaeology of Caithness in recent years and we in Sutherland should be envious but inspired.

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