Peau Noire, Masques Blancs: Self-Image in the Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition in Scotland
Murray, Jane, Antiquity
Approaches to the British Mesolithic-Neolithic transition currently focus on the role of the native Mesolithic, offering opportunities to explore processes of internal social and economic transformation rather than those of migration and colonization (Dennell 1985; Thomas 1991; cf. Case 1969). Interpretations range from theses of evolutionary adaptation based on systems theory to versions of a structuralist Marxist dialectic, invoking revolution. Global perspectives on the adoption of agriculture demonstrate that such explanations represent extremes in the spectrum of possible trajectories of change, which in fact may follow a wide variety of modes of accommodation and competition between different economic and social systems (Gregg 1988). There is a need to examine each instance of transition individually, within the theoretical frameworks, if the character of specific cases is to be understood.
In working on the Neolithic in Scotland accidents of geomorphology constantly enjoin awareness of the presence of the Late Mesolithic. Post-glacial isostatic uplift has raised the zone of western Scottish Late Mesolithic coastal settlement above the effects of marine destruction, preserving Obanian cave deposits and shell middens (Mellars 1987), and offering opportunities for lithic collection around the old shorelines of the southwest (Coles 1964). The same littoral, along the upper edges of the raised beaches, was a favoured location for chambered tomb construction around the Firth of Clyde. Spatial coincidence between these two classes of evidence provides opportunities to explore possible relationships, and has encouraged the development of models invoking direct sequence (e.g. Pollard 1990).
Traditionally, Mesolithic studies have focused on adaptive responses to environment, generating evolutionary explanations of the transition (Clark 1980). It has commonly been suggested that the rich coastal economies of northwest Europe facilitated sedentism, acting as a pre-adaptation to agriculture (Rowley-Conwy 1983). As the extent of settled agriculture among Early Neolithic populations in Britain has come under question, however (e.g. Thomas 1991: 19-28), Ian Armit & Bill Finlayson (1992; 1996) have set out an adjusted model. They argue that the varied marine environment of west coast Scotland predicated the adoption of patterns of logistic exploitation, which survived into recent historic times in the West Highlands, and which probably did not involve any measure of permanent settlement before the Iron Age. The Late Mesolithic is thus suggested to have been characterized by mobility within defined territories, allowing for the development of considerable economic specialization and role differentiation. Neolithic options offered such a society additional opportunities for diversification and status negotiation while causing minimal disturbance to existing lifestyles. Domestic livestock, a little cereal cultivation, and pottery production could all easily be absorbed within current routines. Pre-existing social networks found expression in regionally various pottery styles and chambered tomb types, the latter being of particular importance in the acting-out of on-going power negotiations. In sum, Armit & Finlayson envisage economic continuity and accelerated development of social complexity.
A fundamental difficulty with the above model lies in the absence of evidence for increasing social complexity in Late Mesolithic Scotland. Across Britain the poverty of the archaeological record relating to this period is so great as to resemble hiatus (Bradley 1978: 7-8). Within Scotland, sites with microlithic technology are nearly all dateable to between c. 7500 and 5000 cal BC, while recognizably Neolithic evidence emerges only after c. 4000 cal BC. Apart from a few dates on unassociated charcoal, 5th-millennium readings come mostly from shell middens, some of which, notably on Oronsay, produce simple lithics, together with bevel-ended bone implements and the well-known barbed harpoons (Mellars 1987; Finlayson 1995). The late chronology of the Oronsay middens seems to be a function of their chance preservation at the limits of marine transgression, and there are much earlier dates from other west coast middens and cave sites, also associated with barbed points and bevel-ended tools (Bonsall 1996: 188). Despite differences in bone and lithic technology noted by Finlayson & Edwards (1997: 119), earlier and later sites must both have been exploiting the same marine resource. In the absence of evidence from complementary activity areas, it would, as Bonsall argues, be special pleading to interpret the 4th-millennium middens as representing a short phase of increasing logistic complexity.
Environmental evidence does not support models of 5th-millennium population increase or intensification of exploitation patterns. Anthropogenic impact on vegetation is relatively difficult to identify in the open environments of northern Britain (Tipping 1994), but episodes of suggested interference relate principally to the 6th millennium cal BC or even earlier (Edwards & Ralston 1984: 22-4). In contrast with the position in northern England, there is little sign of immediately pre-elm decline clearance and, indeed, many diagrams from this period show a drop in charcoal levels, so general as to be suggested by Tipping to be possibly attributable to climatic factors (Edwards 1989; Tipping 1996).
Early in the 4th millennium cal BC fundamental and far-reaching changes affect the nature of the archaeological record, suggesting a major realignment of cultural and cognitive attitudes. Effects accrue rapidly, across a wide geographical area, rather than in a sequence of gradual accretion. Plain and carinated bowl pottery, dateable to the first half of the 4th millennium cal BC (Herne 1988), is found across much of Scotland in contexts as early as any from southern England (FIGURE 1) (Cowie 1993). Associations include polished stone axes, leaf arrowheads and a little grain. Most importantly, in contrast with the casual lithic scatters of the Mesolithic, the pottery comes from pits, hearths or refuse spreads, frequently in contexts of association with mortuary deposition and monuments. The emphasis is on structured ritual activity, suggesting as seismic a change in outlook and cultural `habitus' as that attributed by Bourdieu (1977) to the adoption of agriculture.
[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
The extent of this transformation seems to be of much greater significance than is acknowledged by Armit & Finlayson, and would traditionally have been explained in terms of population influx. The exceptional architecture of the timber hall at Balbridie on Deeside, with its deposits of emmer and flax (Fairweather & Ralston 1993), offers some support for an invasion hypothesis. It is still difficult, however, to suggest the origins of such a movement, the British Neolithic remaining obstinately sui generis in terms of its funerary architecture, pottery styles and lithics (Whittle 1977). An unfeasibly massive immigration would be needed to account for the geographical spread of dates on Early Neolithic material, compelling consideration of processes of acculturation. Early Neolithic pottery so frequently coincides with Mesolithic lithic scatters as to suggest considerable continuity in settlement pattern. Evidence for clearance, although widespread, is small-scale, and could be attributable to pastoral activity, or perhaps even to hunting. The major areas of realignment are not those which implicate economic infrastructure, but concern rather a range of artefacts and ritual practices, often involving funerary ceremonies and the erection of monumental structures. The consistently polythetic nature of the reformed cultural package is suggestive of a broadly based cognitive revolution, invoking in turn Stephen Mithen's thesis (1994) that the absorption of one new intellectual concept may lead directly to the attainment of a generalized, multi-faceted restructuring of outlook. The discontinuity in the archaeological record seems here to be representing a major disjunction and the commencement of a new phase of human history involving a wide spectrum of change.
The transformation was not, however, necessarily related to restructuring of economy. In west coast Scotland, short-term, recurrent occupation of Oronsay shell middens during the 5th millennium cal BC (Mellars & Wilkinson 1980) and the ephemeral character of Neolithic occupation traces in the Western Isles provided the genesis of Armit & Finlayson's argument for the continuation of seasonally peripatetic routines and the pursuit of mobile logistic economic strategies. Firm evidence for staple subsistence in the Early Neolithic is thin anywhere in Britain, and the economic importance of cereals before the Late Neolithic remains unproven (Entwistle & Grant 1989). Despite the recovery of significant quantities of grain from the massive early 4th-millennium timber hall at Balbridie in northeast Scotland, the nearest long cairns are found in the surrounding uplands, where pollen evidence registers only light clearance, entirely compatible with continued hunting (Edwards & Ralston 1984: 29). There are indications that hunting and shell-fish exploitation continued during the Neolithic throughout Scotland (e.g Sloan 1982).
Except in the Northern Isles, Neolithic settlement traces in Scotland consist characteristically of pits, post-holes and gullies, giving little suggestion of permanence. Settlement mobility, perhaps allied to a cattle economy following transhumant grazing routines, would have inhibited arable cultivation (cf. Pryor 1989). The architectural magnificence of the Balbridie timber hall suggests that the building may have acted as a central focus in such a system, being used also as a storehouse for seed-corn. A similar role may have been played by the pottery-rich settlement of Eilean Domhnuill, on North Uist, excavated by Armit. A number of saddle-querns suggested crop-processing on the islet site, but it would have been an inconvenient location for livestock management. A long sequence of rebuildings of small, sub-rectangular structures suggested to Armit recurrent, perhaps seasonal occupation, combined with the use of even less substantial settlements. The site was, however, given significance by an elaborate entrance consisting of an incurving, stone-reverted palisade, restructured on successive occasions, approached by a timber walkway, resembling the entrance facade of a chambered tomb (Armit 1996: 47, figure 4.3). These elements of display suggest Eilean Domhnuill to have had an important role, perhaps concerned with cultural and conceptual transformations rather than the reorganization of settlement and subsistence practice.
The well-known model of Neolithicization process set out by Marek Zvelebil & Peter Rowley-Conwy (1986) charted successive acculturation stages of Availability, Substitution and Consolidation. Within this framework the considerable changes that are so clearly observable across Britain in the early 4th millennium cal BC, which implicate artefacts and ritual practice rather than economic reorganization and the adoption of a sedentary lifestyle, would constitute a Substitution Phase. The restructuring of the economy that represented the Consolidation Phase perhaps did not occur until the 3rd millennium cal BC. The question then arises as to whether there had been an earlier Availability Phase during the later 5th millennium cal BC when the existence of a Neolithic alternative began to be recognized. The British Isles are frequently perceived as being culturally isolated during the Mesolithic, but contacts with the continent must have occurred. Grahame Clark (1977) argued that the Atlantic distribution of passage-graves adhered to routes pioneered by Mesolithic fishers, such as those landing deep-sea cod at Morton, Fife. Encounters with overseas communities, whether on a regular or occasional basis, would have served to circulate travellers' tales, spreading rumours of that `other' world beyond the Atlantic fringes, where people used fine, polished stone tools to fell trees and to build massive timber houses, where cattle and other livestock were kept in settlements, and where crops of extraordinary subsistence value were planted and harvested, these perhaps also carrying the potential for intoxication and access to a world of dreams. Huge stone structures were being built on the Atlantic coasts of Brittany from early in the 5th millennium (Scarre et al. 1993). Stories of these legendary builders as a race of giants, with access to unknowable mysteries, will not have diminished in the telling. The possibility that direct contact was made with European agriculturalists is suggested by indications of precocious 5th-millennium grain-growing, perhaps with little long-term success, at sites such as Cashelkeelty in County Kerry (Lynch 1981) and Soyland Moor in the South Pennines (Williams 1985), although similar instances of early cereals in Scotland are not securely founded (Tipping 1994: 19-20).
Recognition of this Availability Phase has important implications for cognitive developments in Britain. Levi-Strauss (1983: 7-8) points out that different social groups may co-exist at close spatial remove without impinging on each other's way of life. Engrained ethnocentrism means that the `other' group lacks perceived reality as a plausible alternative, although its products may be accepted for their exotic value. Problems arise, however, where there is serious technological imbalance between adjacent communities. Even where the more advanced group ignores its inferior neighbour, the latter is inevitably affected by knowledge of the existence of complex skills, about which there is likely to be curiosity. Levi-Strauss tells how the Flathead Indians of the Rocky Mountains sent expeditions on long and dangerous journeys to make contact with Christian missionaries rumoured to be living in Missouri. In the ensuing stages of co-existence the development of the Peyote Cult among the Indian tribes represented an attempt to redefine native culture in terms valid in relation to the sophisticated intrusive system. Burgess & Shennan (1976), impressed by the rapid spread of the cult, used it as an analogy for the widespread adoption of the beaker package. Analogy is no substitute for explanation, but the effectiveness of the metaphor has been such as profoundly to influence archaeological perceptions of the beaker phenomenon. `Beaker folk' have vanished from the literature, and it has become difficult for models invoking immigration and ethnicity to be taken seriously (Brodie 1994: 19).
However inappropriate the specifics of Peyote Cult imagery may be in the context of prehistoric Britain, the issue of the juxtaposition of cultures at differing levels of technological attainment is undoubtedly apposite to consideration of Mesolithic-Neolithic relationships. Much attention has been directed to studying the effects of colonization on less advanced peoples, but it is not only the imposed presence of a dominant society that affects traditional cultures. Simple awareness of alien difference is likely to evoke re-evaluation of established and accepted attitudes and habits of life, with potentially far-reaching consequences.
Initial encounters with the unfamiliar will need to be accommodated within a local idiom and understanding. It seems that when white men appeared in sailing ships in the Pacific, native islanders could only suppose them to be gods, or devils (Bitterli 1986: 70-86, 155-77). A suggestion that the Bumbita Arapesh of Papua New Guinea interpreted visiting European missionaries as being representatives of the spirits of the ancestors, returned from the dead (Leavitt 1995), must have appeal in a Neolithic context. Within such paradigms the respect accorded to strangers will set a value on the relationship beyond the utilitarian. Native peoples will look to the supposedly spiritual beings for advice and guidance, and minor items of material equipment may acquire essential significance as a talismanic means of maintaining continuing contact with the supernatural. Inevitably, however, awareness of the differing practices and priorities of the outsiders, and their failure to respond to the expectations placed on them, will create stresses. Established customs and beliefs come into question and, as the character and structures of society are reassessed from new perspectives, traditional values may be undermined, with possibly disastrous results for previously stable authority structures and cultural systems. Disorientation may lead to disintegration.
The above trajectory would seem to be of very possible relevance to consideration of the impact of Neolithic cultures on the hunting--fishing communities of northwest Europe In some sense it may be that from the distance of the British Isles knowledge of an incomprehensibly complex alternative was more difficult to negotiate than for those in direct contact with the Neolithic. The Ertebolle of Jutland, secure in their marine-based, settled way of life, co-existed with Neolithic settlements on the north European plain throughout the 5th millennium, only accepting some minor artefactual innovations, such as a few traded axes, while developing their own style of pottery (Zvelebil & Rowley-Conwy 1986: 79) In Britain, and perhaps particularly in the north, distance from the alien culture would have reinforced its exoticism. The validity of traditional patterns of life and social mores could have come under question, undermining cultural self-confidence. The 5th-millennium hiatus may thus represent an inhibition of self-expression. The disappearance of the microlith in the 5th millennium BC must have involved, not merely the loss of an unobtrusive stylistic marker, but an abandonment of structured processes of manufacture and hunting practice (Sinclair 1995). The decline in evidence for environmental impacts could derive from the abandonment of large-scale hunting exercises, involving game driving with fire, and a withdrawal into small family groups exploiting reliable aquatic resources. Dates from settlements at Barsalloch, Wigtownshire (Cormack 1970) and Morton, Fife (Coles 1971), from a structure sealed by a layer of soil below an Early Neolithic hearth on Biggar Common, Lanarkshire (Johnston 1997: 243) and from charcoal under a small cairn at Boghead of Fochabers, Moray (Burl 1984: 71), cluster around 5000 cal BC (FIGURE 2). The following centuries lack physically prominent focal markers, other than shell middens. The gap in settlement evidence, which a targeted research project on Islay failed to fill (Mithen 1999), may simply represent a period of reduced incidence of aggregation, and a consequent loss of archaeological visibility. This restricted lifestyle would represent the deconstruction phase which Foucault, for example, would regard as an essential prerequisite to a restructuring of identity.
[Figure 2 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
Just as in personal relationships, for example among siblings, an attribution of intellectual inferiority may induce reactions varying from mute acceptance of a secondary position, to fierce rivalry, or the diversion of ambition into distinctively different paths, so in social situations supposedly disadvantaged groups may choose to pursue strategies of self-suppression, of competition or of emulation (cf. Rowlands 1989). Franz Fanon (1967) documented the acceptance by north Africans of concepts of intellectual and emotional inferiority imposed by Europeans, sapping self-confidence and leading to denigration and denial of indigenous culture. Attempts were made to demonstrate parity with white colonizers through the acquisition and display of the material trappings of the Europeans. Fanon's evocative title, Peau Noire, Masques Blancs (1952), expressed this preoccupation in terms of a despised black skin being masked under an assumed appearance of whiteness. A different emphasis saw the emergence in the 1960s of the Black Muslim movement which offered Afro-Americans, whose developed sense of inferiority amounted even to `hatred for their "Negro-ness'" (Essien-Udom 1966: 24), a means of rehabilitation distinct from the white-dominated culture of the United States, albeit based on
an imagery and symbolism foreign to actual negro history.
In similar terms, the 5th millennium in Scotland may have been a time when native Mesolithic culture, suffering under a sense of impotent insufficiency, was deliberately suppressed. In the early 4th millennium, however, this `deconstruction phase' was succeeded by a dramatic new invention of identity involving the use of Neolithically inspired but locally distinctive items such as the Grimston Bowl and Unstan Ware, leaf arrowheads and polished axes, the latter frequently of imported Cumbrian tuff, besides a range of idiosyncratic mortuary structures, chambered tombs and enclosure forms (see Barclay & Russell-White 1993; Barclay & Maxwell 1998). Sites on Biggar Common and at Boghead of Fochabers that had been important to Mesolithic communities nearly a thousand years earlier now witnessed new ceremonies taking place, sealed under commemorative barrows. This cultural transformation, masking the reality of a persisting Mesolithic settlement pattern and economy, created a climate in which receptiveness to change could grow (cf. Sherratt 1995: 20-21). As Barrett has pointed out (1994: 28), monument-building projects would have `objectified and transformed traditional expectations', giving substance to the aspirations thus displayed. Scotland, at a distance from the established Neolithic of mainland Europe, could develop its own variant forms of ritual, and self-confident communities emerged prepared to move towards a fully agricultural and stock-rearing economy.
The evidence for the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Scotland and, perhaps, across the British Isles, does not conform to a model of gradually intensifying complexity leading inexorably towards Neolithicization, and it may be useful to consider instead a trajectory in which the response to observed Neolithic practice was one of initial loss of identity, followed by a dynamic reinvention of image. The consequent effects of discontinuity in the archaeological record may, in this case at least, be representing neither disaster, nor a process of invisible gradualism, but a punctuated sequence of self-suppression, followed by a purposive, deliberately effected, social revolution.
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JANE MURRAY, 4 Moray Place, Edinburgh EH3 6DS, Scotland. Murraydervaird@talk21.com
Received 7 October 1999, accepted 16 May 2000, revised 15 June 2000.…
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Publication information: Article title: Peau Noire, Masques Blancs: Self-Image in the Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition in Scotland. Contributors: Murray, Jane - Author. Journal title: Antiquity. Volume: 74. Issue: 286 Publication date: December 2000. Page number: 779. © 2008 Antiquity Publications, Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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