This book was such a joy to research and write for. Once again I worked with artist Alex Leonard to develop authentic characters from Scotland’s Mesolithic. I looked for evidence of materials that would have been available and examples of them having been used in other cultures to counter the idea that hunter-gatherers would just have worn fur. Sealskin, fishskin, birdskins and even some woven or netted fabrics were featured. The character’s appearance is also informed by genetic studies of Mesolithic human remains from Europe which consistently reveals people had dark skin tones and dark hair, but often with pale eye colours.
The activities in this book include wonderful storytelling and map-making activities. Imagine living in a world with no maps, no roads, no signposts, no sat nav. We know that Mesolithic hunter-gatherers moved around, but how did they know where to go? How would they give instructions to each other?
Matt brings together groups of writers and artists most, but not all, with an archaeological bent and always produces fantastic resources for specific use with the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, but that will be useful to schools in the rest of the British Isles as well. This publication focuses on the use of forests by Neolithic farmers.
It is organised roughly into chronological sections looking at the development of timber monuments throughout the Neolithic in Scotland, but there are parallels for many of these Scottish structures in the rest of the Britain and in Ireland. Huge timber halls, wooden circles and post flanked cursuses accompanied the stone monuments that we know so much better because they’re still here, for the most part.
I provided ideas for the classroom and woodland based activities that could help teachers explore the use of the timber resource in Scotland’s heavily forested Neolithic. One of these was like a ‘Combination Man’ game where one person draws the feet and legs, covers what they’ve done and passes it on and then the next person draws the torso, and the final person draws the head. With the help of Alan Braby, a superb illustrator, the book suggests ‘Combination Post’ game where children draw what they think the posts of a timber circle might have looked like. Is it carved? Painted? Left as it is? Has the tree been turned upside down so the roots stick out of the top?
Alan Braby also provided very intricate reconstruction drawings of the monuments in use, including a very grisly ‘Table of Bones’, a mortuary structure for excarnation. Alice Watterson produced more intimate reconstructions of the personal use of tools in the Neolithic. Linocut landscapes, including the one on the cover, were produced by Liz Myhill. John MacPherson was given the task of locating typical woodlands around Scotland and photographing them without people, to get a feel for the different types of woodland and the emotions they evoke. As Matt Ritchie says in the book, he wanted photos of woodlands that were ‘open, light and safe;… bare, skeletal and dormant; deep, dark and scary…’
Gavin MacGregor and Ingrid Shearer of Northlight Heritage were given the job of writing stories exploring the different ways that people in the Neolithic may have used and viewed the forest; as a resource; as a scary place to be avoided; as an ancestral home. These evocative tales were the basis of ten characters sketches that I wrote. Alex Leonard really brought them to life, though, with his beautiful cartoon style drawings of them. Winta and Shaarmarke, Ani and Uri (and Boudin the dog), Tanta and Laki have all become my friends now.
Gavin, Ingrid and I took part in the Third Public Archaeology Twitter Conference and explained some of the process from storytelling to illustration. Here is the moment I created on Twitter: #PATC3 First Foresters and response
I was so lucky to work on this wonderful project with all these talented people, who could have thought I would ever get the chance to do anything quite so cool again. But that’s another story.