The 'Northern Pasts' conference
3-5 April 1998
Newcastle University

reviewed by A.M. Chadwick


The Northern Pasts conference took place in Newcastle (UK) from April 3 to 5 of this year, and was hosted by Jan Harding and the Department of Archaeology at Newcastle University. It was also supported by the Neolithic Studies Group, the Lithic Studies Society, and the Prehistoric Ceramics Research Group. It was an eclectic gathering of academics, contract archaeologists, and independent field workers. The papers themselves were equally heterogeneous. Although prehistory remained the main focus of the meeting, the papers covered a wide range of themes from the Mesolithic through the pre-Roman Iron Age and the Romano-British periods, and included areas stretching from the northern Midlands of England to central-southern Scotland. The quality of papers was variable, but that is often the case at other large conferences such as Theoretical Archaeological Group.

My own archaeological experience and research interests are in the later prehistory of northern England and landscape-based studies, and inevitably it was these to which I paid closest attention, and will outline here. There were some particularly cogent presentations which covered many of these themes. Jan Harding of Newcastle University and Paul Frodsham from the Northumberland National Park both gave wide-ranging introductory papers. These sought to debunk many myths of northern prehistory and to present new visions of northern pasts which rely on the strengths of the northern evidence rather than the continued comparisons to the south and to Wessex in particular, which bedevil much writing on the prehistory of the region. They both view northern prehistory as a series of varied, localised pasts, rather than as an overall grand narrative, and they put forward frameworks for research which could be tested and explored by future work.

Peter Halkon from the University of Hull/East Riding Archaeology Society outlined some of the rich and varied evidence for iron age metallurgy and settlement in the East Yorkshire lowlands, and Robert Young of Leicester University examined definitions of 'marginality' in the later prehistoric settlement of the northern uplands. Robert Johnston from Newcastle University gave an informative talk on the links between cultivation and death in the cairnfields of Northumberland, and Kenneth Brophy from Glasgow University investigated the Ayrshire cursus of Wet Drybridge from a contextual and phenomenological framework. Clive Waddington from Newcastle University examined the mesolithic-neolithic transition in the Millfield Basin, and Graeme Guilbert of the Trent and Peak Archaeological Trust showed in an entertaining manner how 'factoids' can so easily become established in the archaeological literature and enshrined in subsequent reconstruction drawings.

Locally based archaeologists were well represented, with good papers from John Barnatt of the Peak Park Authority on the bronze age in the Peak District, and a well argued presentation from Bill Bevan, also of the Peak Park Authority, which illustrated how the formation of the British nation-state in the nineteenth century and twentieth century and subsequent political developments have continued to hamper archaeological enquiry in northern England. The on-going project at Gardom's Edge in the Peak District was summarised by Mark Edmonds of University of Sheffield. His paper had many resonances with that given by Max Adams concerning the Durham University project at Ingram in the Cheviots. In both cases, empirically rigorous survey and small-scale excavation methodologies coupled with dynamic and flexible interpretative ideas has meant that archaeologists are now much closer to understanding how prehistoric societies inhabited these landscapes. The complicated palimpsests of features already known in these two study areas have been shown to be just the tips of the archaeological icebergs that lie under the surface, and in both instances, the targeting of selected areas for more extensive excavation has produced a wealth of evidence for phasing and prehistoric lifeways. Both Gardom's Edge and Ingram show the potential for future research-driven projects in northern Britain.

There were some drawbacks to the conference, the most obvious being that too many papers were included in the programme. In the one full day's meeting, there were sixteen presentations for example, and this inevitably meant that these were often tantalizingly brief. Discussion after them was severely limited or non-existent. The attempt to cover so much geographical and chronological ground was laudable, but I think that fewer papers and longer and more focused discussion sessions would have been more conducive to debate. That out of the thirty people presenting papers, only two were women was also a cause for concern. Although I am aware of the many difficulties still faced by women in academic and contract archaeology, I hope that this conference reflected a temporary aberration, rather than a trend of women not becoming involved in northern landscape archaeology, or even being excluded from it. Many of my female friends and colleagues from the department here in Sheffield will certainly be making important contributions in the years ahead.

There were some tremendously disappointing papers too. One presentation on the neolithic and bronze age pottery traditions of northern England was almost unbearably turgid, and in its detailing of fabric types and decorative schemes it gave absolutely no impression of the human lives which had surrounded the manufacture and use of this pottery, nor of the many and varied meanings such vessels may have had for these people. Similarly, extensive surveys of prehistoric settlement morphology in south-west Scotland and lithic scatters in the Tyne Valley appeared to put classification and sample analyses ahead of any consideration of what it meant to dwell within these landscapes during the study periods concerned. One paper in particular talked of sites clustering along the 50-metre contour, as if prehistoric people had mental Ordnance Survey maps to assist them as they carried out their routine, everyday movements and tasks around the landscape!

Without challenging and considered theoretical research frameworks, even the most extensive and methodologically rigorous landscape studies cannot bring the lives of ordinary people in the past any closer to us in the present. As archaeologists, I think we should be writing more interesting histories of these communities for others within the discipline and for the wider public too. The Northern Pasts conference not only illustrated the regional diversity and richness of the archaeology of northern Britain, but also highlighted the differences between those archaeologists committed to the writing of new histories and those trapped in more moribund worlds of enclosure typologies and slope aspect ratios. We must, of course, be continually striving to improve our surveying, excavation, and recording techniques, but this will be of little use in itself if we cannot use more contextual perspectives critically to assess our results. The archaeological field work process should be made more accessible to the public, and new ways of presenting the results explored. New forums for discussion must be encouraged, and more conferences in the same spirit of Northern Pasts would be most welcome -- though with fewer papers and more discussion next time, please.

Copyright © A.M. Chadwick 1998


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