Perhaps Found, Perhaps Not: Art and archaeology in Orkney

On Saturday morning, I chummed my storyteller friend/mentor/partner-in-crime Tom Muir to the opening of -Perhaps Found (Perhaps Not)* at Orkney Museum, where Tom works as Exhibitions Officer (told you we all had day jobs), before heading off on a tiny plane to the wonderfully bizarre Papay Gyro Nights art festival.┬áThe exhibition poster had caught my eye on social media, and I was keen to see it. The artwork is by Rik Hammond, who in 2011-12 was the Orkney World Heritage Site artist-in-residence (I like the idea of this post, a way for someone to explore in an imaginative and hopefully accessible way what it means to be a heritage site, what heritage is and why we like to make such a big deal about it.) He used the time to work closely with archaeologists and museum professionals to create his art, testing the boundaries between researching and creating. This new exhibition continues on similar themes, with Orkney’s human landscape at the centre. Rik spent considerable time at the Ness of Brodgar digs last year, and this work seeks to get under the skin of the digging process itself (so much more than digging these days, of course – all sorts of surveying equipment is in evidence.)

Perhaps Found, perhaps Not: 1-75
Perhaps Found, Perhaps Not: 1-75

The colour scheme is, as one visitor remarks, Orkney in winter. Stone, mud, grey sea. Colours in photographs are deep, powerful but also muted. On either side of one long wall of the exhibition space hang two groups of 75 tiny paintings, all different combinations of stone, earth, sea. These square fragments of art are hung and coded in specimen bags, and you must come close to examine them. Perhaps at first glance they are almost abstract, but the Orcadians and archaeologists passing through the exhibition keep pointing them out as this hill, this mound, this excavation. Whether they represent horizon, artefact or site, they are all equal size, all equally important. Small finds, put together to make a theory about a site. Small moments, sights, put together to make an idea of a place and where it came from. But when you’ve lost the map, the story, the community, it’s hard to put them all in order and see what they meant.

Perhaps Found, Perhaps Not 93
Perhaps Found, Perhaps Not 93

Site Orientation is another series of moments, photographed this time, showing the archaeologist’s (Martin Carruthers, in this case) position as human in the site, hands feet and eyes interacting with landscape but also tools, presented again as individual finds, the photographs becoming the archaeology of a movement. But not all is still here. The Field Drawing pieces, named individually after the sites as archaeologists call them – Structure 1, etc – are the opposite of an archaeologist’s precise drawings (yet no less accurate?) As well as the still shape emerging from the ground, the movements of diggers and surveyors, walkers and seers, are captured through soft, light lines, which strengthen into tides through repetition. Again they may not look quite like anything at first glance, but every visitor who knows the dig can name them easily without reading titles.

Field Drawing (Structure A)
Field Drawing (Structure A)

Movements in space are given a different temporal perspective – GPS tracking data is consolidated into lines and black pools that look (to a non-archaeologist) like the ritual paths through a landscape that we try to find and analyse in Neolithic remains. (Clearly, ritual.) Methods of research and knowing are played with again in Walkover Survey, Skaill, Orkney, in which extracts from James Moore’s PhD thesis (Landscape and Society in Orkney During the First Millennium BC) are shaped along GPS tracking lines to re-create outlines of the site they discuss. These are different ways of understanding: the physical experience of walking and being in a landscape, the conclusions reached after deep thinking, cultural knowledge passed on through reading and writing. James Moore also appears in one of the portrait photographs which give more presence to the people involved in digging. ‘Total Station Epiphany’ features James, arms spread, Moses-like against a moody sky, maybe in the grip of some thesis-defining revelation. Another work uses black and white photography of the dig to fill the outline of Structure 10, Ness of Brodgar, on a stark white background. The process of the structure’s re-emerging from the landscape is as present as the structure itself. The discovery of the past through any means – survey or reading or telling stories – can never really be anything but a re-creation, a new making of our worldview, always surrounded by that unknown space.

Rik talks about the exhibition to an archaeoologist; I make notes for this post. (Photo by Sweyn Hunter)
Rik talks about the exhibition to an archaeologist; I make notes for this post. (Photo by Sweyn Hunter)

Representing archaeological findings in a meaningful way is a constant challenge for Orkney heritage bodies, what with new excavations shifting understandings on a daily basis (summer months only, winter revelations sail twice a week if pre-booked). Time and money, though, are short, as is true for any museum at the moment. The Orkney Museum in Kirkwall has been unable to update its archaeology displays significantly in around 30 years… during which time things have changed somewhat. They’ve recently hired an Archaeology Project Officer, Jennifer Allison, to entirely redesign the displays in a much more flexible and reflective way, and a way which can keep up to date with . She’s been talking to locals, scheduling opportunities across the islands for interested lay people to get ideas, rather than only asking the ‘experts’. I look forward to seeing how this turns out, and hope to write more about the project here in the future. Rik is currently working on another project which focuses on the history and physicality of Orkney – a year spent creating art inspired by the Orkney museum. So far this has included imagery inspired not just by the dramatic, beautiful or mysterious objects of the past, but the everyday processes of dealing with these things. Dehumidifiers and CCTV cameras remind us of the process of museum-creating, the decisions and preparations which go into the displays through which we meet our past.

All heritage is created – we can’t go back, we can only look from where we are now, and use our best ideas to build something meaningful. Letting artists into the museum to play with the boundaries of what we think we know might just spur us on to new discoveries.