Reasons for travel include opportunities to meet new people, to make friends, to learn about differing ways people live, and to consider how that compares to your own life.
Those are also, you might say, reasons archaeologists study the past, especially through studying the things people have left behind, what remains of how they lived their lives in times before our own.
Every year in September, the people of Scotland celebrate the past as they mark Scottish Archaeology Month. The past is always close at hand in Scotland. During Scottish Archaeology Month, there are special events of many sorts.
In honor of that, here’s a look of some of the stories we’ve written about exploring the past of Scotland.
Scotland is the home to six UNESCO world Heritage sites. One of these is the Neolithic Heart of Orkney, a designation which includes many of Orkney’s ancient sites. I took you on a visit to Skara Brae, the remnant of a village thousands of years old which is both one of Scotland’s most popular ancient sites and one of its most mysterious. Guiding you to what you might find on Orkney during summer time, I pointed out an ongoing excavation which you are able to visit and see the archaeologists at work.
Antonia reflected on the ancient aspects of the isle of Islay. Today best known for its peaty whisky, she found that “…you can touch the still-solid walls of stone buildings that comprised the MacDonald clan’s 14th-century rule over the Hebrides. Present-day Islay might be known for whisky and walking, but these ruins remind the visitor that its residents once ruled an island empire reaching even to parts of Ireland.”
Skye gave recommendations for visiting the present day of his namesake island of Skye, while giving a nod to Picitish artifacts and dinosaur footprints which you can find there.
Those places are both part of the Inner Hebrides. I offered an introduction to the Outer Hebrides, which are present day communities holding their own deep connections to the past across their landscapes and in their stories.
You may, of course, experience quite a bit of Scotland’s archaeology of both the recent and distant past through the collections of its museums. I went to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh purposely to meet the Lewis Chessmen – they were carved it is thought around the tenth century in Norway and were probably on their way to Ireland when they went overboard, or their ship met with misfortune – in any case, the chest they were in washed up in the Outer Hebrides on the Isle of Lewis and was discovered centuries later.
Speaking of Lewis and archaeology – there are the standing stones at Calanais. The edge of the known world, I think they might have seemed to those who put them in place centuries before the birth of Christ. Visit, experience the spirit of the place, and make your own conclusions.
If you are familiar with the Outlander books and television series, you’ll know that stone circles are a major plot point in the stories. I suggested several real life standing stones you may explore in present day Scotland.
The battle of Culloden is important to the Outlander stories too. Skye visited connections of the Harry Potter films and history, too.
Not all archaeology is ancient.
You could consider the work of architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh archaeology as much as history, especially with the refurbishment of the Willow Tea Rooms he designed, the repurposing of The Lighthouse as a museum and center for contemporary architecture, and the discoveries made in the wake of the fires at The Glasgow School of Art.
Up in Stonehaven, near Saint Andrews on Scotland’s east coast, there are the dramatic remains of Dunottar castle. There’s also a tradition on New Years’s Eve of people marching through the streets of Stonehaven, swinging balls of fire, and ending by tossing them into the harbor. That, along with the parade and burning of the long ships at Up Helly Aa in Shetland every January, are subjects for anthropology rather than archaeology, perhaps, but archaeologists’ work helps us understand and put them in context, too.
When you visit the Scotland’s First Peoples area at Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow, one of the things you will see is a very ancient stone carved in what’s known as a cup and ring pattern. It’s not known what the significance of that sort of pattern was, but what you can know, standing before that stone, is that you see the work of a craftsperson that reaches across time. It seems a fitting image to conclude this celebration of our travels in honor of Scottish Archeology Month.
We have been to many other places that draw on and explore the work of archaeologists, in Scotland and places as diverse as Israel, India, China, New Mexico, and Ontario. Stay with us as our journeys continue.
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