In the second half of Kathleen Jamie’s latest nature writing essay collection, Surfacing, she writes about an archaeological dig on the the island Orkney in Scotland, remembers a trip to a Tibetan town in China in her twenties, and tries to recall voices of her own female ancestors that are beginning to fade from her memory.
Links of Noltland I, II, III
The author spends time at another dig, one whose archaeology has been buried for five thousand years on the Scottish island of Orkney.
‘What’s happening is significant really to…well, to archaeology, but also to us, the human race.’
It is a Neothilic and Bronze Age settlement, a site that has been in operation for a number of years and could go on for many more, if they had surety of funding. They do not.
‘There’s enough here for thirty PhDs on bone alone,’ said Graeme, ‘Decades worth of work.’
‘If HES really pull out what will happen?’
‘We’ll have to look elsewhere and make all kinds of promises. We can’t look to the EU anymore.’
There is not just the work on site, but a Victorian building stacked with their findings, she visits and is shown beads bones and stones and ponders who those people might have been.
For a moment, out of the twenty-first-century plastic boxes stacked in the gloomy Victorian store, there emerged a vision of people clothed in animal hides, bearing spiral-designed pots, with hair braided, hanging with beads, people crazy about cattle, young people prematurely old, as we would think now.
The most famous find, discovered in 2009, is kept in the Heritage centre, where they have a small section, most of the centre given over to more recent Viking finds.
The ‘Westray wife’ is the earliest representation we have of a human, in the UK, and she has become a motif for the site, almost a tourist attraction, if tourists can be drawn to a sandstone figure not four centimetres high on a faraway island.
Jamie asks about local interest in their ancient dig and is surprised by the response.
‘They’re interested but not connected. It’s only the Viking they’re interested in. It’s the Vikings the Orkney and Shetland islanders identify with. They’re not British, not Scottish, they’re Norse. Not prehistoric. Viking.’
‘But the Vikings are so recent, relatively.’
‘The Vikings “won”,’ said Hazel with a shrug.
‘What do you mean the Vikings “won”?’ I asked reluctantly, thinking of the ancient burial mound I could see from my window, which the Vikings had chosen to use as a fishing station.
‘Just that. After the Vikings arrived, all traces of the older culture ceased. That’s what the archaeology is suggesting.’
Some years before the team found cows’ skulls set into the walls of one of the buildings they’d excavated, a complete ring of cattle skulls, all placed upside down with the horns facing into the room. The wall had been built up over them, no longer visible, but presumably their presence had been felt by whoever built it.
There are other sites over Europe where cattle skulls have been found and often a rush to come to conclusions, resulting in dramatic headlines of massacre or sacrifice, but this team have a different take on it, believing them to have had symbolic or aesthetic significance.
‘Remember’, said Graeme, ‘these animals would have had biographies. They would have been known as individuals. As personalities. Spoken about.’
‘You think they revered their cows?’
‘Worshipped!’ Hazel Laughed.
She meets a couple who are organic cattle farmers, it seems like the only living link to the Neolithic people. They moved onto the farm one day and ploughed up the ryegrass the next, to plant a species-rich herbal lay, with thirty varieties of grass, which has seen a great increase in insects and wormcasts. They now have a herd of twenty-three milking cows. With names. And personalities. And a bull named Eric.
‘Lots of bulls here are called Eric. I think its a Viking thing.’
The couple make an artisan cheese in the style of alpine French cheeses called ‘Westray Wife’ a little picture of the Neolithic figurine features on their labels.
In the second part of the essay she returns for the end of the season, the closing of the site and in the third part she writes the story of the Neolithic people, the culmination of observation and imagination.
Although ‘Surfacing’is a metaphor which aptly describes the book’s theme and is appropriate for narratives about archaeological digs, it is also the title of a vignette about the author’s mother and grandmother.
Your losing their voices. When did that happen? You’re forgetting the sound of your mother’s voice,and your grandmother’s. They died within eighteen months of each other a decade ago and today you realise you can’t quite bring their voices to mind.
A Tibetan Dog
A wonderful little essay that recounts an experience with a little terrier in a Tibetan town and his return in a dream many years later, a symbol she interprets on awaking, like a message from the subconscious she immediately understands.
The Wind Horse
The final longer essay is one pulled from old notebooks and memories of her twenty-seven-year old self, travelling far from home, a woman who wanted to become a writer, starting out.
It is notably different to the earlier essays, more of a travelogue, less present, more self-conscious, there’s a passivity to travelling through a place without purpose, looking at it from the outside.
I could look and smile, but what did I learn of their lives, the prostrating Tibetan pilgrims, the stallholder deftly working an abacus, the ice-cream girl with her barrow, who sat with her chin in her hands when business was slack? Nothing at all.
A tall monk who wore brown robes and a topknot staying at their hotel.
He may have been a Taoist, he may have been Japanese, I don’t know, and I regret that I didn’t try to speak to him.
This reticence highlights what has become one of her strengths, prominent in the earlier pieces. What has also surfaced is Jamie’s generosity and respect for those she interacts with, she gives voice to others, her observations are an amalgam of her own observations and insights and those of the many other passionate participants or locals she encounters in her meanderings. She is not the lone observation, she is a gatherer of insight.
I so enjoy and value how the essays draw you in to her experience, she achieves just the right balance of nature and humanity, of observation and interaction, of imagination and reality. Her work is like a patchwork quilt, made up of different colours and textures, bringing in all the elements that make a community, whether its 5,000 or 500 years old or from the present day.
This could well be her best collection yet.