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North Ronaldsay - punding with the crofters


My tour of British islands continues, this time to Orkney. First, the incredible neolithic landscapes on the Mainland - the passage tomb of Maes Howe that has the feel of a five-thousand year old cathedral, the stone villages of Barnhouse and Skara Brae and the monolithic Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. 

I also managed whistle-stop visits to the OLDEST HOUSE IN THE WORLD (pictured) - the Knap of Howar, on the tiny island of Papa Westry, an Iron Age Broch at Gurness, and Rennibister Earth House (actually not a house at all, but an underground store, functioning like a prehistoric fridge), the evocative Tomb of the Eagles at Isbister, and Cuween tomb, where excavators found the skulls of 24 little dogs.  Even then we were a nation of animal-lovers.

Then I took the tiny plane to North Ronaldsay to help with the 'punding' (sorting) of the sheep and the lambing.  The people on the island, all 54 of them, still farm their sheep communally, ostensibly governed by the Sheep Court who meet once a month to manage matters of sheep numbers and the upkeep of the sheep dyke.  The sheep live year-round on the beach, between a high turf dyke and the sea, and eat seaweed.  The punding was intense, with over 3000 sheep to be gathered and sorted in three days.  This year was even more tricky, because all the rams needed to be caught and administered the blue tongue vaccine before being released back on to the beach. 

I took my little video camera with me, and you can watch my 7-minute movie here: 


For comprehensive info about the archaeology of the Orkney islands see the orkneyjar website.

Innovation and Anthropology

I was recently invited to speak at ?What If! Innovation consultancy in London.

A client wanted to explore the importance of social connections, play and fun. 

So the guys at ?What If! invited me to come and chat about human evolution, the differences between men and women, why humans need to play, and how modern living overlays our inbuilt evolutionary urges.  

Biology can be the basis for any number of outcomes - we are ultimately creatures of culture, in all its complex, subtle, contradictory forms.  

As a species we are quick learning, highly social and extraordinarily underspecialised.  Our babies are born 'half-cooked'.  We need other people to survive, and we need other people to help us understand the world.

Those important social connections exist on three levels, and at every level, we check with others to make sure we’re doing it right

  1. connections with the world
  2. connections with each other
  3. connections inside yourself

It’s a creative task to make sense of the world – one that's impossible without other people.  

 "The clients were captivated with the content and the energy Mary-Ann exuded. Mary-Ann's energy and professionalism made her an utter joy to work with. I now always recommend her to colleagues and professional contacts.” 

Kate Lawrie, Senior Project Producer, ?What If! Innovation

21st Century Christmas - the new Nativity for Virgin Media

How well do we Brits know the traditional Christmas Story?

If the Nativity were to happen now, in the UK, what would it look like?

Is Joseph a carpenter? 

Is Mary still meek and mild? 

Is the little donkey the vehicle of choice?

@MaryVirgin Just been visited by an angel telling me I’m preggers.  WT*?! #cunfused

Virgin Media asked me to build a profile of what a 21st Century British Nativity might look like, so using statistical data from the Census and Office for National Statistics, research from fields as diverse as dating and sex surveys to models of online network activity and a touch of anthropological imagination, I painted them a new picture.

“My starting assumption is that Joseph and Mary are, above all, totally average.  They were from an area in the Biblical lands with a stable population and not much migration.  Within Britain, the North East is the area with the lowest inflow and outflow of regional migration – people moving within the country.

It’s one of the poorer regions of the UK, with a disposable income per head of just £12,216 (for 2007) compared to the UK average of £14,317.  But GCSE students do better than the national average, and the birth rate for young people is around the national average.  So that’s where Joseph and Mary are from."

 But when something like a miracle virgin birth occurs in our Digital Age, news is going to spread fast, and a new celebrity circus will arrive in town – with a new celeb name - MoJo.

Virgin Media also commissioned a survey to find out how well we Brits know the Christmas story - and the results were pretty surprising!

The Angel Gabriel coming to tell Mary she’s pregnant, the journey to Bethlehem on a donkey, no room at the Inn, visits from shepherds and the three kings Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior, bringing gifts to a stable?


If you ask the average man or woman on the street, they'll tell you that Joseph was a shepherd, Jesus was born in a hospital, and King Herod was one of those nice wise men, along with Good King Wenceslas.


Armed with my new profile, and the results of the UK-wide survey, I reported the facts to the national media, including live interviews with BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Leeds, Seven FM, City Talk and talkSport. 

Although overall Church attendance is on the decrease, more people have attended Christmas services every year since 2001 - 40% of UK adults will attend Church this Christmas.

Whatever your religious beliefs, I think there’s a deep value in the story of the Nativity, of extraordinary things happening to ordinary people, and the promise of hope for a new future.

Identity - Who do you think you are?

I was asked to pen a number of articles on the anthropological aspects of the BBC's Castaway show.  Twelve Brits were put on an isolated New Zealand island with minimal supplies and attempted to build a strong and sustainable community.

What is a sense of identity?

How do you know who you are? Well, we've all got particular ideas about what's important to us: who we care about, what job we do, what our roles and responsibilities are, our lifestyle and political views. And going about our daily lives, we're surrounded by the people and objects that help to support these identities.

When I meet a new person, they, like me, are in the middle of a cultural framework that acts like a signpost to their identity. Humans are fantastically intelligent animals - without even thinking about it, we can read the social signals that tell us who it is that we're dealing with. As they say, first impressions count. So do third, fourth and fifth impressions!

But sometimes these initial impressions can be wrong.

Why? Because we often read other people's signposts in a way that confirms what we were expecting to find. And that might confirm prejudices that we have. We absorb all sorts of information about the person (what they look like, how they dress and talk, what they're saying, their body language), and jump to false conclusions about what it all means.

By nature we're social animals, and we gravitate towards people who we feel safe with and understood by. When we read other people???s signposts, we crudely put them into one of two categories: 'us', or 'them'.

Whenever I come across a person who isn't in the 'us' category, it confirms my identity by confirming what I'm not. This is something that anthropologists call the 'other'.

What will happen to the castaways?

We've put a bunch of strangers on a remote island. They'll be in a completely new environment, without their own people or things, at the mercy of the elements. They'll have the added stress of finding that simple routines like washing and cooking have become major challenges.

I think the most familiar things on the island will be... the other castaways. Although they've been plucked out of the clue-giving frameworks of their lives, our castaways aren't blank canvases. And they'll each be working overtime to identify what and who they're dealing with.

With fewer details on the signposts, the castaways will tend to use stereotypes to make sense of each other. The idea of social 'class' may be the big one.

British folk are highly sensitive to the subtleties of class in 21st Century Britain. Class can cover all sorts of social behaviour, and can give people clear ideas about what they think is right and wrong, and even 'normal'.

Our castaways have talked a lot about who they think they are during their auditions for the show, and they're not afraid of describing themselves as 'common', and 'posh', amongst other things. It's likely that they won't be afraid to describe each other in the same ways!

Under pressure, the Castaways might translate class differences into thinking that people are bossy, uneducated, lazy or stupid, clever, friendly or good leaders. Accents, vocabulary and attitudes will play a big part in sorting out who is 'us', and who is 'them' for each Castaway.

For the castaways, some of the major class-determined conflicts might be:

  • What women and men should do in camp
  • Whether people are 'pulling their weight'
  • Who should be in charge and how social hierarchies develop
  • How the Castaways resolve their differences

Forming Groups

In some ways, the castaways have new opportunities to manipulate the identities that they have at home. On the island, they don't have their full cultural signposts with them, so they can exploit the blanks - what they do and don't tell each other will be very revealing!

But however hard the castaways try to manage their image, the others will still make judgements about them based on the way they speak, dress, and approach the challenges of island life.

The challenge for the castaways will be to overcome their prejudices, so that they can work effectively as a group. For a successful community, the members need to find that common ground - how they can be 'us', rather than 'them', for each other.

And in this extreme and unusual situation, I'm going to be looking out for the castaways examining their personal sense of identity - exactly who they think they are!