Ancestral Piles: decay and stabilisation in the culture of ruination at The Cairns Broch, Orkney

To practice archaeology is to honour decay. Archaeologists often spend large amounts of their working-lives engaging with ruins. Archaeologists recognise that the scientific archaeological understandings of site formation processes and taphonomics (death assemblages) are part of our culture’s discourses with death, decay and ruination.

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Ragnhild Ljosland
email: Ragnhild.ljosland@uhi.ac.uk

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Ruins of chambered cairn

Time hath not spared his ruin, - wind and rain
Have broken down his stronghold; and again
We see that Death is mighty lord of all,
And king and clown to ashen dust must fall

From Ravenna by Oscar Wilde, 1878

For this seminar, I would like to contemplate how societies cope with the inherent instability of the material and social world by exploring a case study based upon the Iron Age broch settlement site of The Cairns, which I am currently excavating in South Ronaldsay, Orkney. 

To practice archaeology is to honour decay. Archaeologists often spend large amounts of their working-lives engaging with ruins. Archaeologists recognise that the scientific archaeological understandings of site formation processes and taphonomics (death assemblages) are part of our culture’s discourses with death, decay and ruination. For this seminar, I would like to contemplate how societies cope with the inherent instability of the material and social world by exploring a case study based upon the Iron Age broch settlement site of The Cairns, which I am currently excavating in South Ronaldsay, Orkney. The houses and other buildings that people constructed and occupied there, literally accommodated, and responded to, the tangible ruins of earlier generations in their midst. Each generation’s construction of new buildings within the medium of these ancestral piles engendered strategies for coping with the societal and psychological impacts of bearing witness to ruination and decay. I argue that at The Cairns, there was an aesthetic of ruination. Empowerment and value were gained in the present via contact with the rotted and ruined buildings of the past. This allowed community to carry on, striving and thriving.  What is remarkable is not that things end, but that human beings manage to stabilise the natural tendency towards ruination and decay, if only for the time being.

Speaker

Martin Carruthers, Archaeology Institute, Orkney College UHI.

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