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3. An interpretive examination of the Mesolithic of the northern Irish Sea basin

So far I have suggested that we must attempt to provide a more interpretive account of the Mesolithic period in the northern Irish Sea basin to address the problematic issues that shape current work on the area. Principally, I argue that at the core of the problems in the accounts that exist is their construction around a series of frameworks that are historically specific to the modern west. It is not the intention of this paper to recapitulate many of the key arguments that have recently been developed on the subject of archaeology's relationship with Modernity here (e.g. see Thomas 2004, Olsen 2001) except to reiterate that such modernist frameworks are constructed around the ontological privileging of mind over matter. As such they perpetuate a series of highly contradictory notions regarding how we may conceive aspects such as nature and culture, and subject and object that have time and again been subject to much critique both within the discipline and without (e.g. amongst others Heidegger 1962, Thomas 2004, Olsen 2001). Furthermore the historic specificity of their construction also inherently privileges androcentric and heternomormative world views (reviewed in Cobb 2006, forthcoming d). Consequently in order to address the problems outlined we must move away from such modernist frameworks in our interpretations of the Mesolithic period and reconceptualise a series of fundamental dimensions of prehistoric hunter-gatherer interactions with the world. So here, I will consider questions of prehistoric hunter-gatherer identity and hunter-gatherer interactions with their material world and their landscapes.

Let us turn first then to the question of identity, and how we may come to consider this in relation to prehistoric hunter-gatherers. Recent work on this area has clearly demonstrated that the conceptualisation of the singular and bounded individual is only one of many ways in which identity can be understood (see Fowler 2004 for a summary of this). In contrast both ethnographic (Busby 1997, Lipuma 1998, Strathern 1988) and other sociological (e.g. Butler 1990, 1993) accounts have sought to illustrate the extent to which identity can be formed through performative and discursive acts. As such, in reality, many aspects of personal identity may be continually in production or subject to significant changes throughout life. Clearly then we need to think through alternative ways in which personal identity was produced and negotiated in prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies, and by doing so this also enables us to think differently about the conception of the body. Indeed those approaches that have so far sought to reconceive hunter-gatherer identities in such ways have been able to produce a series of significantly different and exciting interpretations of otherwise functionally and economically understood facets of the Mesolithic record (e.g. Conneller 2004, 2006, forthcoming; Finlay 2000, 2003a, 2003b, 2006).

It is clear that by thinking quite differently about identity, we must also begin to consider hunter-gatherer interactions with materials differently. To do so requires drawing upon a series of approaches to materials and to technology that have come to light within the discipline over the last few decades that seek to stress the embodied and skilled nature of technical acts (e.g. Dobres 2000, Ingold 1990, 2000, Lemonnier 1993, Pfaffenberger 1992). Indeed, drawing upon such arguments Tim Ingold has suggested that there is no such thing as technology in pre-modern societies and that instead,

"through their tools and techniques hunter-gatherers strive to minimise this distance, drawing nature into the nexus of social relations, or 'humanising' it. This 'drawing in' has as its object to establish the conditions not of control but of a kind of mutualism. In this, the tool delivers a force that is personal not mechanical" (Ingold 2000, 314 - original emphasis).

Such a perspective enables Ingold to draw out a more nuanced, embodied and sensual account of the nature of hunter-gatherer material interactions that is far removed from the traditional techno-typological and functional approaches that have dominated most discussions of Mesolithic tool use. In contrast to such approaches, Ingold illustrates that we can move away from historically specific Cartesian arguments that see materials and nature as inert until form or culture is enforced upon them, and instead we can regard the relationship between people and materials as in continual emergence through skilled, sensual interactions and associations across the wider world.

Clearly by pursuing such alternative ways of examining hunter-gatherer constructions of identity and understandings of material interactions, we must also look to a similar direction to explore how hunter-gatherer populations may have conceived of place and of landscape. Of the three areas discussed here this has received perhaps the most consideration and there is a wide body of literature that has sought to reconsider how past people may have conceived of their landscapes (just a few include Johnson 2007, Tilley 1994, and papers in Ashmore and Knapp 1999, Chadwick 2004, Ucko and Layton 1999). At the heart of many of these approaches is the notion that we must reject Cartesian perspectives of landscape as simply a two dimensional resource that can be commodified and objectified. In making and responding to this point, phenomenological approaches have often been at the forefront of such critiques, however a number of accounts have found such approaches to prehistoric hunter-gatherer landscape interactions highly problematic, noting their propensity to provide visually oriented truisms and little else (Jordan 2003). Yet conversely I would argue that phenomenology does have a significant role to play in how we can interpret past hunter-gatherers in both its central role in critiquing Cartesian perspectives and thinking more practically about how we can come to explore the embodied, sensual and temporally situated nature in which hunter-gatherers came to make and understand their worlds (for a further detailed discussion of this see Cobb 2007, forthcoming a). Consequently I argue that it is not enough to demand we reconsider aspects such as identity, material interactions and understandings of place and landscape separately, but rather we need to examine how they all intersected in a manner akin to that encapsulated in Ingold's notion of the taskscape (Ingold 1993).

It is with this idea of materials, identities and places as continually in production through their messy, temporally situated intersection across the taskscape that my research aims to explore the Mesolithic of the northern Irish Sea Basin. Specifically my work aims to reassess whether trends in material culture really do adhere to the modern political boundaries that have structured narratives of the Mesolithic in the area, and examine how understandings of place and materials contributed to the construction of personal identity. Ultimately, considering these aspects will then provide a more even field for exploring the nature of the transitions from hunting and gathering to farming. As such I have put these aims into practice in a number of ways. My research has involved conducting a detailed review of both the literature and many of the key collections from the Mesolithic period within the northern Irish Sea basin. In such a review I have sought to establish and examine more unconventional details regarding materials and material practices, including a consideration of the non-flint materials present on sites, and the indications certain tool and material forms provide as to the nature of the sensual embodied acts that were undertaken in their production, use and deposition.

At first glance such an approach is perhaps reminiscent of the chaîne opératoire approaches advocated by many since the early 1990s (see papers in Schlanger and Sinclair 1990, also Dobres 2000). However my work extends beyond this by coupling this information with details of the location of sites within the landscape and considering the temporal contexts against which such knowledge was disclosed. Such a consideration has been implemented at a series of levels. On a macro scale the information from my review of material styles and experiences has been considered as it is distributed across the entire northern Irish Sea basin, through the construction of a detailed GIS to plot and query this information (not published here). This is enabling the identification of trends which for the first time review the entire area without restricting data and queries to their distribution only amongst modern geo-political entities. Moreover this information has been further enhanced by a micro-scale consideration of 120 (or 9%) of the 1315 Mesolithic sites in the area. These have been visited and at each Quick Time Virtual Reality panoramas (Figure 3 and Figure 4), hand drawn schematics (Figure 5) and in situ observations regarding the nature of the experience at the site have been made.

Figure 3: The author taking a quick time panorama
Figure 3: The author taking a quick time panorama

Figure 4: A Quick Time Panorama from the site of Curran Point, Larne

The combination of these elements provides a series of resources that enables a detailed consideration of each site situated within its wider taskscape. For example, Figure 4 illustrates how a Quick Time panorama may enable the reader to consider the experience of a site which on a map appears ostensibly to be situated in a coastal location, yet which in reality is almost entirely enclosed and surrounded by sea loch and land. Furthermore viewing Figures 4 and Figure 5 together enables the reader to consider the relationship of Curran Point to other nearby sites and topographical features. To produce the final analysis, this kind of consideration has been undertaken in combination with detailed reference to the GIS to enable an examination of the temporal and material relationships between sites and explore the traditions and connections that may have been entwined with certain locations over the Mesolithic period.

Figure 5: A schematic hand drawn representation of Curran Point to accompany the QTVR panorama in Figure 4
Figure 5: A schematic hand drawn representation of Curran Point to accompany the QTVR panorama in Figure 4

Whilst there are undoubtedly problems with attempting to explore such sensual and experiential aspects through such inherently modern, western modes of analysis such as GIS and QTVR (Brück 2005), this approach nonetheless has the potential to enable an examination of materials and places as they contribute to the production of identity in the Mesolithic of the northern Irish Sea basin. Moreover it can, at least to some extent, enable a movement away from potentially limiting modern geo-political boundaries.


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