Dreams of Stone and Sea- or, How I Ended Up in Orkney

I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to document and share my recent Orkney experience.  I decided that rather than squeeze thoughts and photos into a post, this might be the better alternative. My intention is to write a piece as often as I can manage, describing, roughly in order, how we got there, what we saw, what we learned.  So, these posts will be part travelogue, part archaeology, part natural history, part analysis.

Quick backstory:
I’ve been trying to get to Ireland and the UK for 30 years.  Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been drawn to NW European archaeology.  In the last decade or so since the internet has made it easier, I have been studying places I wanted to go.   One thing I will always try my best to avoid is traveling as a stereotypical tourist or ugly American… I don’t want to be clueless and I want people to know I care about them in the now, not just their history.

Especially since social media has made it easy, I’ve been following various on-going excavations across NW Europe.  The Ness of Brodgar was one of those.  About 7 years ago, I sent an inquiry to the site director about his call out for volunteers.  But my kids were small and the timing otherwise poor, and I decided I couldn’t do it.  But I kept reading, and following the progress as the Ness excavation grew and continued to astound and redefine our notions of the Neolithic.

Then the big article in National Geographic came out in Dec 2014.  Since then, the BBC has had several documentaries on the Ness but this past winter, they did a 3-part series that highlighted Orkney archaeology in general.  Then I attended a lecture by Nick Card, the director, in Ohio this past March.  A couple weeks later, there was an announcement on the Facebook page that several volunteer spots had opened up.  I stayed up until 2 am that night, crafting a fresh resume, and sent it.  Nick responded the next day, to say I was good to go; the rest is history now.

Thank goodness I didn’t try to travel alone for my first journey out of North America.  Word of advice: if you’re not going with a tour group, DEFINITELY bring a wingman.  My daughter and partner in crime, Hollyn, was mine.  Together, we faced the perils of driving in the UK.  It is fairEdinburgh defeated us, but in the rest of the country, we gained growing confidence until after 3 weeks, we knew most of the etiquette (if not all the roadsigns.)

We left our house at 9:30 am on Friday.  We drove to Purdue and took a shuttle to O’Hare. We flew Aer Lingus from Chicago to Dublin to Edinburgh.  We rented a car there at the airport, drove to Aberdeen, then took the ferry to Kirkwall, on mainland Orkney.  We arrived at our host, Mhairi’s house, on Sunday about 11:30 pm.  It could have been earlier in the day had we not tried to navigate Edinburgh, but best case it would be about 2.5 days at a fairly relaxed but steady pace to get there by those means.  I think the only thing we were missing was a leg that included a train and/or a hot air balloon.  (Flying directly into Kirkwall might have actually been less expensive in the long run, but we wanted to see the Highlands as well. When we go again, I’ll have to think about what makes the most sense, given what the goals are at the time.)

I want to share Orkney with everyone!  I do want to go back, and I’d love to go as a guide.  If you, or anyone you know, would be interested in going with a small and flexible group, drop me a line!  I would really like to take M.A.P. in this direction.  North American tours?  Ireland? the UK?  Let’s do it.

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The River – A History of Strawtown Park from a Slightly Different Point of View

For thousands of years, the river cut it’s way through the upland plains in the land south of the Lakes. The river joined smaller brothers as it wound around rises, as it fell down shallow slopes to eventually join it’s own bigger brother.  In one place, the river did something it almost never did.  It took a sharp turn north, against it’s generally southwestward flow.  Once, it hadn’t followed this tortuous northern bend.  It had flowed easily along the base of a cliff it been carving out for millennia until the earth pushed it away and urged it to take a new path. Now it flowed on the other side of the valley, carving new cliffs, and a wide plain within the Great Bend. The river loved the animals, and when humans came the river loved them especially because they knew the river, and talked to it and gave it a name.  And the river gave the humans many gifts.

For many long years the river saw humans come to the Great Bend, where the river flowed north, where the great herds migrated and where finally, humans made encampments.  They bore their young there, like the other animals.  They lived and collected the many foodstuffs that lived and grew on the floodplain, and river and bog.  Eventually the river saw the humans make shelters that lasted many seasons, not just the little shelters that they carried or ones that rotted away quickly. The humans burned the grasses and trees and planted new ones.  They rode the river in trees and the skins of trees.  They fished in the river and gathered clay by the river.  They dug holes in the earth and placed food inside, or refuse, or fires or sometimes, their dead. And the river watched.

Then, new humans came that were different and many.  They used the river differently, and they tore down the trees and wrenched great furrows into the ground.  The rains came and carried much soil from the furrows into the river. And the river, once named for it’s clear water and stony bottom became muddy, and sluggish. Many of the creatures that lived in the river struggled to survive as they suffocated in silt and were over-harvested by the new humans.  The new humans dumped poisonous things into the river, that didn’t rot away. They didn’t talk to the river.  And the river watched.

Even later, in the Great Bend, one new human decided to cut the river off from the land.  He used machines to tear apart the earth.  He used the earth to make a wall and force the river to stay always in it’s banks. But the river liked to stretch sometimes.  Sometimes it was swollen with snowmelt and rain from the thunder clouds. The river gave soil to the land at these times, and the land was always grateful and glad of the gift of the river. The river was angry and roiled against the wall and slowly, season by season, it began to break the wall down. And still the river watched.

When the old wall-builder died, his bones were not buried near the river.  The river saw new humans come to the Great Bend.  The new humans were different from all that had come before.  They walked and listened and talked.  They built slowly, and planted the old plants and the river was glad.  The river broke through the wall in one place and the new humans only watched, and the river sighed with relief.  The new humans began to ride the river again, and take away the poisonous things. The river was happier than it had been in a long time.

But then the new humans began to dig again.  And the river saw the digging where the old ones dwelled long ago.  Every fall, for 12 seasons, the river saw the bones of the old ones being uncovered, exposed and sometimes carried away.  The things the old ones made with the gifts of the river- shell, rock, clay – were torn from the land and carried away.  The old ones who had talked to the river, and named it, and who had never harmed it.  And the river was sad and angry at the new ones, and tore up the trails they laid near the river.  And the river watched.

One day, the river felt a something it hadn’t felt in a long time. The river watched some humans come to the Great Bend, to the places where the old ones had dwelled. They looked a little like the new ones but they felt different.  And familiar.  The river watched and was curious.  These humans were quiet and sad.  They looked at the land and the plants and the river.  They talked to them.  And the river knew they were from the old ones.  And the river watched.

Summer grew old and fall was drawing near again.  The river waited for the diggers to come to the Great Bend, but no diggers came.  The river rejoiced.  But now, it misses the old ones.  The river waits and watches for the old ones to come again.

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