Archaeologists in Residence at Papay Gyro Nights: Experience, expectations and folklore-in-the-making.

Paper presented at Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) Conference 2013, UCL London 09/11/13.


Since February 2013, we have been archaeologists-in-residence at Papay Gyro Nights, an international contemporary arts festival held annually on the island of Papa Westray, Orkney. In this paper we present some aspects of this work-in-progress and discuss part of this experience. We will be focussing upon two interlinked projects: firstly, our own interactive walking fieldwork which contributes to the festival, and secondly, a collaborative ‘folklore-in-the-making’ project that we have undertaken with an artist-in-residence. This contemporary archaeology has necessitated a new fieldwork methodology as we have developed our own practice as archaeologists within an arts context.

1947 East side 6 edited(Aerial photo: Orkney SMR)

Papa Westray (Papay) is one of Orkney’s northernmost islands, with a population of 90 people. Although only 2km by 7km, it is extraordinarily rich in archaeological sites and home to 20th-century wartime remains, early Christian sites and the oldest standing building in NW Europe, the 5,500-year-old house at the Knap of Howar. There is also a rich folkloric tradition with many stories embedded within the island – this is a place of trows, selkies, a cow bombed in the 1939-45 war and St Tredwell who removed her eyes to retain her chastity. The rhythm of contemporary daily life is punctuated by the ferry and flight timetables, which can be disrupted by weather at any time of year.

Papay Gyro Nights

In August 2007 two contemporary artists, Sergei Ivanov and Tzi Man Chan, who had recently moved to the island from London, set up Land Art Papa Westray, an independent, not-for-profit project specialising in place-specific art and curatorial practice. Drawing inspiration from the near forgotten 19th-century Papa Westray tradition of the Night of the Gyros, the first International Papay Gyro Nights Contemporary Arts Festival was coordinated on the island in 2011. The week-long festival coincides with the first full moon in February, the traditional time of the gyros involving guising, a night chase and fire. In the words of the organisers, the festival is:

‘a research lab, learning hub and the place for a discussion about the interaction between new media and ideas in relation to tradition, ritual and the island’s landscape and heritage … the Island is transformed into the art space…”(Ivanov & Chan 2013).

There is an emphasis on new media – video art, photography and sound art – and events, installations and workshops are held throughout the island in the old kelp store, the grain loft at Holland farm, and Papay School with the main focus the organisers’ house and workshop at Tredwell. Attendance at events is small, often 10 to 15 people, although numbers rise for music events, films and storytelling. At the end of each year, the Knap of Howar Art Prize is awarded to one artist, voted for by the local community.

Residencies this year included a sound artist, a photographer and kinetic artists from Norway, a multi-media artist from Hong Kong, a painter from London, a storyteller from Orkney and a French film-maker. In addition to the artistic residencies, there was also an anthropologist-in-residence (Stuart McLean, University of Minnesota), a philosopher-in-residence (Rick Dolphijn, Utrecht University) and archaeologists-in-residence (us).

Archaeologists in Residence

So, how do we define an archaeological residency? The recent increase in art-archaeology interactions and collaborations has been well-documented (see Edmonds & Evans 1991; Renfrew 2003; Renfrew et al 2004; Schofield 2006; Cochrane and Russell eds. Forthcoming; Bailey 2008; O’Connor 2008; Russell 2008) and we do not need to reiterate them here. There are clearly many artists working with archaeological material, themes or processes in their work, such as Mark Dion (Dion & Coles 1999; Vilches 2007), Simon Callery (Callery 2004) amongst others (see Cochrane & Russell 2007; Russell & Cochrane 2008; Roelstraete 2009), and there are also archaeologists who are inspired by artists in their interpretations of the past (Tilley et al 2000). There are however scarce instances of archaeologists exploring new forms of practice within an arts setting (Bailey 2008; although see Thomas forthcoming).

In October 2012 I posed this question to the CHAT discussion list: “Although there are now many examples of residencies by artists in archaeological environments, I was wondering if list members know of any archaeological ‘residencies’ in contemporary art environments….. What form did / could these take? What made them specifically archaeological?”

The responses highlighted recent work in transcending the traditional disciplinary boundaries between art and archaeology, and in particular projects by Carolyn White (White pers comm), James Dixon (Dixon 2010), Gisli Palsson and Oscar Aldred (2011) which involved archaeological residencies within an arts context. Art-and-archaeology work by Christine Finn, Ian Alden Russell and Michael Shanks amongst others also refuses to be pigeonholed into neat disciplinary compartments. It is not necessary to discuss these works here, but we acknowledge their contribution to the field and to our thinking. Despite these exceptions, however, most art-archaeology interactions are still one-way, with the archaeological element of the relationship merely providing passive source material for the artistic involvement.

In contrast, our approach has been to actively participate; rather than merely produce a passive archaeology of Papay Gyro Nights, we have used our role to contribute an archaeological sensibility to the festival – archaeologies with. We decided to use the ‘thinking-through-doing’ (Thomas forthcoming) of fieldwork as exploratory research, allowing the method to guide the theory and practice. This also allowed us to use the archaeological survey as a medium for dialogue with the artists and wider community at the festival, and acted as a springboard for collaborations. One of the only limitations we placed on our survey was to focus on contemporary material and sites. So far, our fieldwork at Papay Gyro Nights has followed two parallel, but overlapping, trajectories: our own mapping and survey project, and collaborative work with artists at the festival. It is to these which we turn now.

Walkover survey

At the start of our residency we wondered what a contemporary archaeology of Papa Westray would consist of. How would we start to investigate and understand this rural island-scape and community? Perceived as marginal and remote with an economy based on farming, fishing and tourism, Papay contrasts markedly with urban, industrial or military areas – the usual haunts of contemporary archaeology. Because Papay is small and rural does it mean the contemporary archaeology is more subtle and ephemeral? Drawing on Harrison (2011) and Harrison and Schofield’s (2010) notions of the present (and past) as a ‘surface layer’ and an ‘archaeology-of-surface-survey’, we chose walkover survey as the methodology by which to investigate the festival and island. There is a neat simplicity in just walking, looking, experiencing and thinking. This method has taken a more passive role when walking between, during and after events, and a more active role through our own mapping projects. The festival becomes an assemblage of places, topography and journeying linked by walking and experiences.

Contemporary archaeology on Papay exists at a range of scales. Plastic beach litter links the island with issues of global pollution in the present-day, whilst reused ship’s cargo references unreached destinations, heroic rescues and tragedies. Dumps of domestic items and the tradition of using abandoned cars (‘field cars’) as animal shelters in fields signal local attitudes to disposal and reuse. At the Knap of Howar, the massive concrete coastal defences and the annual manicuring of the scheduled area by Historic Scotland are overlooked aspects of this iconic site. These Neolithic houses bring tourists to Papay and have recently come to symbolise the island. Abandoned farms and 20th-century graffiti have also been considered when they punctuate the festival programme and our walks.

Our site records are varied and include photographs, written description, measured sketches, coordinates, GPS tracks and sound recordings. These are built upon as sites are revisited and reinvented. Walkover sites around the island have contextualised the festival and many have led to productive threads in their own right, for example following the life ways of plastic marine pollution and entering the Anthropocene debate. Our interest in plastic beach litter and how this material permeates people’s houses, farms and the festival has led us to think about things from the plastic’s perspective; from hydrocarbon, to manufacture, to litter, to host inside the stomachs of seabirds, to sand and eventually combined with geological material to make new types of rock.

Places in the making

Of particular interest are the sites created during the festival, as these provide the opportunity to observe events in process, examine the resulting traces and their subsequent decay. Painter Armando Seijo, who usually works at clubs and demonstrations in London, does ‘live’ painting of events as they happen, such as storytellings, workshops, academic talks and music events ( His large oil on board paintings capture the event in process, folklore-in-the-making if you like.

Most of the festival’s events are small scale and leave little or no physical trace. For example, music events in the kelp store do not alter the building apart from shifts in furniture and occasional abandoned items. We have been following Signe Liden’s sound installation in a byre at Vestness during construction, use and decommissioning as a coming together of materials and their subsequent redistribution ( A series of plastic pipes and containers were rigged up in the rafters and produced fluctuating sounds using a compressor and reeds borrowed from an old accordion. The sound has gone but some pipes and fittings used during the piece remain to take on new relationships; it has been interesting mapping a sound installation spatially.

Frog King

Frog King, a performance and mixed media artist from Hong Kong, established an Art Institute in the school community room. One of his on-going projects – 9 Million Works –  involves the mass production and giving away of his art ( Pieces are simple and made rapidly, as demonstrated in his workshop, consisting of ripped paper, calligraphy and plastic. His unique brand of art is neatly summarised by his motto, ‘life is art, art is life, life is frog’.  Amongst his midden of give-aways and fancy dress was his suitcase full of all things froggy, a constant creation and redistribution of materials on a personal yet global scale. Revisiting the community room four months later, the space had been thoroughly cleaned. However, on closer inspection we found a few scraps of red paper and a plastic fragment tucked into a corner. Residues of Frog King had survived.

Hut burning site and Bonfire

Events that leave a more physical mark include the opening fire procession, bonfire and hut burning. The hut, constructed from found wooden materials, was burnt as part of a film set. ‘Time to go’ focuses on the hut, characters and subsequent burning event. Unfortunately, we missed the hut burning, but can start to build evidence of the event from the resulting film, oral accounts and physical remains. Examining the burning site, around the fire cracked internal paving, we found a dense surface scatter of nails, many of which are clearly home made on the island. This field is to feature more heavily in the 2014 festival and is becoming one of the focal places for our survey.

We are particularly interested in the Bonfire Architecture Competition project 2nd prize winners proposal (Architects: Thomas Impiglia, Birgir Örn Jónsson and Thais K. Espersen, London, UK), which involves the construction of a large bonfire with a sculptural clay core that becomes fired as the bonfire is burnt (PGN 2013b). This is to be realised for the 2014 festival and we are going to follow the preparations, construction, firing and decay of this event and monument. As Harrison and Schofield (2010) and Carolyn White (2013) point out, the opportunity to witness active sites and follow them into the future is one of the distinctive characteristics of contemporary archaeology.

In summary, our walkover, however, is not ‘total survey’ but rhizomatic (sensu Deleuze and Guattari 2004). It aims to explore the festival and island through links, following threads, collaborations, cross cuttings and connections. In this sense, the walkover methodology is used as the modus operandi for exploring the island, festival, sites in-and-of-the-present and places-in-the-making. Some of those sites and contexts, however, we are helping to create ourselves.

Map of Papay by Walking

Initially, in order to map the events and experiences of the festival, and in traditional archaeological style, we thought we needed a base map. Rather than borrow from the Ordnance Survey, we decided to create our own using GPS tracks. This project enabled us to conceptualise the festival spatially and record sites by walking around them. ‘Map of Papay by Walking’ is an obvious homage to Richard Long, the pioneer of contemporary art walking, but the method finds more resonance with the GPS drawings of Jeremy Wood, whose piece ‘My Ghost’ (2009) mapped his movements around London for 9 years (cited in O’Rourke 2013).

To start with, the map was to be a passive record of our festival journeys, walkover surveys and drifting, however more recently the mapping process itself has taken more of an active role. Our tracks repeat and multiply throughout the festival, showing movement between as well as during events. GPS receivers were deliberately left on inside buildings, resulting in clusters where poor quality satellite data creates a point cloud of error. Within this noise, however, movement before, during and after events is visible. Unlike in traditional archaeological surveys, this error has been celebrated as sites and events begin to take on new forms.

Reflecting on our map we realised that on a larger scale, of course, it reaffirms what we already know – roads, fences, buildings and how we move between them – tarmac, walking, and cars. Our map reinforces histories of agricultural improvements, centralisation at the main island farm and the authority of ordnance survey maps; demonstrating the power of these regimes however radical the festival tries to be. This criticism could also be levelled at Jeremy Wood’s GPS drawings – they reaffirm what we already know in terms of geography.

Wilfred Hou Je Bok describes psychogeography as a process of ‘decoding urban space by moving through it in unexpected ways’ (cited in O’Rourke 2013, 7). I’m not sure there is some underlying spatial code, however, moving through rural space in unexpected ways will be just as fruitful. Now we have mapped the festival in 2013, we want to remap it in 2014. In collaboration with Land Art Papa Westray, we are encouraging the community and artists to undertake Creative Papay Walks, finding different routes around the island, map them with GPS, collect objects and experience new places. It will be interesting to see how we get on in the middle of the Northern Isles winter!


We will now focus on one of our collaborations that is linked through walking, journeying, creating places and exploring the tension between past and present. Photographer Tonje Birkeland enacts a series of fictional early 20th-century personalities – travellers and explorers – taking on their appearance, practice and their life as her own, in order to explore landscape and place through a different lens. These characters are photographed within the wider landscape using a 1970s medium format camera. Her projects ‘derive from journeys. Through photographs – landscapes and self-portraits – text and found objects, she works with female travelers – The Characters – and their adventures’ (Tonje Birkeland, personal communication). Tonje’s characters are fictional, but the more they become enacted, the more they brush with reality. Her current character is Luelle Magdalon Lumiére (1873-1973), a stereo photographer. ‘Driven by mystery, illusion and magic, Luelle travels to Orkney, to Papa Westray, Stromness and Hoy – in her early career’ (ibid).

Papay 17 1 edited

Photograph: Tonje Birkeland (c)

Working with Tonje, it became apparent that the characters do in fact become real. Walking the north end of the island and visiting her photographic ‘sites’, these places were in the process of becoming though Luelle, by our repeated visits and the photographs. Part of our involvement as archaeologists was to start to map these places, turning the less tangible journey into a more consolidated route; turning space into place. The ability to revisit places by memory may seem simple, however the weather and geology of the coastal margins play tricks as landscapes and times merge. The GPS will allow us to revisit sites and explore them at different times and in different lights; it measures and reaffirms the fluidity of place.

Luelle’s possessions – the props – were exhibited at Tredwell (Land Art Papa Westray studio) in June 2013. We drew a plan of the exhibition and recorded the objects as a way into exploring this assemblage: 1950s oil lamps and boat timber, 19th-century leather boots, modern whale bones, an Edwardian jacket. Some of these things have international origins (for example a Kodak camera from a New York flea market) and others were found nearby (for example the whale bones were from the nearby beach). This assemblage allows different times and places to overlap and punctuate the present-day in Papay. Tonje’s photographs also have a timeless quality that is at once both situated in the present, and in a mythical past.

The recent discovery in the Orkney Auction Mart of this photograph, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Tonje’s photographs and the beach on Papay, has added another layer to the story. The setting, the lone woman and the date are the same – could this be the real Luelle? We have found that cliff and stood in that spot. Is this folklore-in-the-making?


The role of an archaeologist-in-residence at a contemporary art festival could be viewed as a simplistic inversion of the artist-in-residence at an archaeological site. To the organisers, however, Papay Gyro Nights is perceived as an assemblage, a coming together of artists and practitioners each giving something to the project based on conversations and collaborations. Artists-in-residence are given a freedom to respond to their new environment and connections rather than working under rigid aims and outcomes; residencies at Papay Gyro Nights are about process, rather than specific curation, pieces or final shows. In inviting us to be ‘in residence’ at the festival, the organisers were keen to see what an archaeological response to Papay Gyro Nights would consist of, and how this could feed into the festival. Rather than act as passive observers, therefore, we are actively contributing to Papay Gyro Nights through both our own practice and by collaborating with other artists. This has caused us to challenge our own preconceptions of archaeological field practice and highlighted the expectations and tensions inherent within this sort of engagement.

At the start of the project, we were concerned about our practice being archaeological. When we initially explained to others that we were archaeologists-in-residence at the festival, the first reaction was often to ask ‘what are you going to dig?’ On seeing displays of some of our work-in-progress, some of the visitors to the festival asked “and why is this important?” There is always an expectation that archaeology is concerned with, excavation, the ancient past, and the preservation and / or record of ‘important’ artefacts and sites. But there has never been a desire to interpret or represent the past through our project, and we are certainly not going to excavate. In fact, freeing ourselves from this dominant trope in archaeology (Harrison 2011) has liberated us from the traditional dogma this involves. Nor are we overly concerned with trying to define what a residency is. In arts practice there is no clear definition; residencies are project specific, flexible and practice led. With our project, once we stopped worrying about what we were supposed to do as archaeologists, we could get on with just doing.

Focussing upon contemporary material culture and ‘sites-in-the-making’ in our survey offered us an immediate means of exploring an archaeology-of-the-now. Simple archaeological techniques such as walkover survey and GPS-mapping of sites acted as a springboard for more creative collaborations and research. It is clear that both art and archaeology can be their strongest and most theoretically-robust when they are practice-led. By focussing upon process rather than being driven by the need to create an end product, a messier (Law 2004; Dixon 2009; Graves-Brown et al 2013), more rhizomatic (Deleuze and Guattari 2004) approach to archaeological research can be explored.  Artist residencies are about taking ideas, work and practice to another place and developing these in response to that place and people. There does not need to be a start or end point, restrictions we archaeologists are very good at imposing on ourselves. It can be a work-in-progress, a continuous flow of experience and personal development. As such, the development of our own process-led practice in the context of a residency is not only valid, but is essential to the particular contemporary archaeology we are undertaking.


To conclude, within the bounds of our residency, we cannot record everything. Indeed, we have explicitly avoided archaeology as recording for recording’s sake and the comprehensive over collection of raw data inherent in our discipline. It is in this respect that we think our project offers a different methodological approach to other contemporary archaeologies. Our investigations are free and practice-led. The experience of thinking-through-doing, allows specific mini-projects and ideas to emerge from process. This has perhaps been the main tension within our residency, as we have tried to balance planning and a fieldwork strategy with ‘messy research’ and process-led practice. We are finding this challenging but rewarding.

We have only been able to touch upon a little bit of our residency in this paper, and it is important to reiterate that this project is currently on-going and represents a work-in-progress. The project continues to grow towards Papay Gyro Nights 2014.

Daniel Lee and Antonia Thomas, 2013


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1 Response to Archaeologists in Residence at Papay Gyro Nights: Experience, expectations and folklore-in-the-making.

  1. Pingback: Collaborative drawings | Archaeologists in Residence

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