13 September, 2014

Dumbing down the past.

Dumbing down through abstraction
In two previous posts, [ 1 + 2 ] I have demonstrated that one of the central images of British Prehistory, the Wessex Roundhouse, is a construct which does not accurately the evidence.  It is not a discovery, or rocket science, I just read the relevant reports and looked at the plans and sections.
While I am happy to call these roundhouse constructs dumbing down, what to call the scholarship they generate presents a problem, since it represents the application of presumably perfectly acceptable theory to an imaginary data set. 
Archaeology is often at its best and most incisive when it has borrowed from other disciplines, but left to their own devices some academics have wandered off through the dewy system to delve into ideas about the relationship between people and built environments. But perhaps sometimes they just look at the pictures.
It is possible for anthropologists to study the relationship between people and their built environments; the humans can be questioned and observed, and the spaces inspected. In such a study, we might also wish consider factors of age, status, and gender, as well as more complex issues pertaining to the ownership and creation of spaces.
In anthropology, a theory, a set of ideas or a cosmology which explain the patterns of behaviour associated with particular places can be developed through the study of people and spaces. 
However, in Archaeology the people we study are dead and their spaces destroyed, or they usually are after we have finished with them.
If your understanding of a relationship is good enough, as in algebra, you can substitute one missing value, but not two; [? + ? = 4] is not a basis for understanding either of the unknowns.  In the study of prehistoric timber buildings there are no real people or spaces.  
Images from a Google 'Iron Age Roundhouse" image search. Note; only one image has anything to do with the Iron Age.
Archaeology is not a science, but more of a faith based study, and one reason for this is that people believe the pictures on the cover, but ignore the evidence inside, as is case with the roundhouse.  Further, since we have imagined and rebuilt the past, so it has seemed possible to sketch in one of the unknowns, and then project our theories into the minds of imaginary people who might inhabit in these pictures and constructs.
Hence, Iron Age Building Cosmology, or as my PhD tutor put it “… at least we understand roundhouses now…”.
Exemplum -
How people we have never met perceived spaces we have never seen - this was my terrible watershed moment, the retaliation there is no way through this mire of theoretical obfuscation. People take it seriously, it was an article of faith, and I was never going to be able to dumb my research down enough for PhD at Newcastle {caveat emptor}. It is not that understanding timber buildings is difficult, it just that it often conflicts with the pictures of the past and the ideas they generate. Unfortunately, as an archaeologist, I know that the picture on the cover is only a serving suggestion and not necessarily a guide to content, but;
  • The tutor know she is correct about Iron Age Building Cosmology
  • Iron Age Building Cosmology is peer reviewed
  • The Postgraduate Dean knows the tutor is an expert in Iron Age Building Cosmology
  • The University knows there are no bad academics only poor students
  • All Institutions know there are no bad universities only poor students
The latter universal principle ensures that the application of simple engineering to archaeological evidence for structures remains a post – university study. 
The game is stacked against new research I may have the numbers, but my tutor has the picture cards and can play a joker; you can't argue about the archaeology of timber structures with the Postgraduate dean, since, like my tutor, he also knows nothing about the subject, and has not read my work.  Ironically, you can’t have an academic argument with a university, since, in a faith based study, tenure infers a degree of infallibility; thus, in a faculty of arts, 3 + 1 can = 4, if you tutor says so. 
Realistically, Universities are fee earning institutions, there to look after the interests of their fee-earners, and as long as the fees come in dumbing in direction is not a concern.  However, dumbing down does appear inevitable as successive years of student intake have been perceived as poorly educated by academics who were themselves criticised by their own teachers.
Archaeology – The Trowel Test
As a result of the deep personal trauma of watching my life savings go down the pan because academics cannot distinguish between archaeological evidence and a construct of our shared visual culture, I am deeply suspicious of archaeology that has not been in contact with a trowel; a principle I extend to archaeologists.   Outside this redbrick reality, you cannot represent the views, opinions, feelings, perceptions, beliefs, cosmologies, or humour of the preliterate dead as some sort of knowledge, even if you use complex language and the magic words Claude Lévi-Strauss.
Most of what archaeology actually finds, things like postholes, can be summarised on a A4 context sheet, perhaps with a scale drawing on the back, and any bits of interest popped in a bag for later study; it’s simple, so simple even field archaeologists can understand it.  In contrast, the study of what archaeologists don’t find, and postprocessualism in general, is characterised by irrelevant digressions into ethnography and theory, where simplistic observations are disguised by a complex, elusive, exclusive and intimidatory vocabulary, illustrating not only an inability to communicate, but also a lack of anything significance to say.  Dumbing down by abstraction.  We need look no further than the Peter Principle, and what I imagine must be some form of Imposter Syndrome, as the cause of institutions that promote and protect a narrative of faith based learning.
 Circular Arguments
In the case of roundhouses, we connect their archaeology with buildings on the basis of shape, not form, function, construction method or materials.  Shape also trumps technology, culture, climate, and environment as a basis for comparison and ethnographic parallels. Above left; Little Woodbury reconstruction by  Crown Film Unit [2]
Except for a few notable exceptions, our pictures and realisation of the past are not real, or even necessarily evidence based, yet can have a powerful influence the way we think and visualise the past.   This visual conditioning present the biggest barrier to understanding the evidence; it is probably a similar task to deprogramming former cult members, who have  receive positive feedback and reward from their peers that reassures them their beliefs are rational, hoverer strange they may seem to us. 

Ploughing in Abyssinia - Johann Bernatz 1842 [3]
I have suggested that imperialism and classical education helped generate an idea of  ”primitive culture“ as a universal quasi-evolutionary phase somehow comparable to our Pre-Roman culture.  In addition, it’s natural that archaeologists, consider woodworking tools in terms the materials they are made from, rather than what they were used for, further aiding inappropriate comparison.  
I have also argued that, rather than copying his methodology, post-war field archaeology sought to reproduce the results of Bersu’s Little Woodbury roundhouse excavation, giving rise to a fundamental bias in our methodology and subsequent results[4]
  [Above; P Reynolds and J Lindsey ploughing at Butser ].
The untimely death of Peter Reynolds, leaving his work unfinished, has meant that what he had termed a "construct" has become a slavishly reproduced as a "reconstruction". His original building at Butser had a roof pitch of 45˚, because he argued it is simple to create and it was used in Africa, which tells us much about an intellectual climate of his time, ideas that still persists today [5] .  The roof leaked and the structure was damaged in a storm and had to be demolished, which should have taught us more than it did.
This simplistic borrowed conception of a prehistoric built environment has created a discontinuity with our own historical architectural and craft culture, particularly the use of wood.  .  Dumbing down the past betrays its practitioners, patrons and the public. undermining value and trust in education among those who pay for it.  Experimental archaeologists, re-enactors, and the builders of ancient buildings want to believe in the authenticity and educational value of what they do.
Above left; Detail from Secoton North Carolina by John White, 1585.  
As recent work at Stonehenge has shown, the representations of past landscapes that we have routinely imagined are completely wrong, proving basing our ideas on pictures and constructs is simply building a house of cards, sticks, straw, or any material you care to imagine.  

Sources and further reading
[1] Detail from Watercolour painted by John White, 1585.  "North carolina algonkin-dorf" by John White, explorer and artist - British Museum, London. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:North_carolina_algonkin-dorf.jpg#mediaviewer/File:North_carolina_algonkin-dorf.jpgJohn White (1585-1593)  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_White_(colonist_and_artist)
[2] http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/469778/[3] Bernatz, Johann Martin (1802-1878);  Album of 19 drawings of scenes and landscapes made during an embassy to Abyssinia. 1841-1843
[4] G. Bersu: 1940: Excavations at Little Woodbury, Wiltshire. Part 1, the settlement revealed by excavation. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 6, 30 -111
[5] Harding, D W, Blake I M, and Renolds P J, 1993 An Iron Age settlement in Dorsett: Excavation and reconstruction. University of Ediburgh. Department of Archaeology Monograph series No. 1. & visit http://www.butser.org.uk/index.html

04 September, 2014

Parish Notices; Help Nigel Hetherington of Past Preservers do the EH Wall Hike

On  19 of September Nigel Hetherington of Past Preservers, will be returning to his ancestral homelands and taking part in the English Heritage's Hadrian's Wall Hike to raise funds for much needed conservation along the famous route. Please Donate today to support Nigel and English Heritage, and share with your friends and colleagues. All of your donations and efforts are greatly appreciated, please Tweet your support to @Pastpreservers and @EnglishHeritage using the #HadriansHike hashtag and please spread the word! 
Things are not easy for wor UNESCO World Heritage Site [1], and recently,  some significant wheels have fallen off.  
You can sign up today to join Nigel (and provide moral support!) and walk 30 miles of the 'best of the wall’ from Lanercost Priory to Chester’s Roman Fort. The hike, sponsored by Craghoppers, will give participants special access to the expert English Heritage team.
.....And I have offered my own time for free as a guide or talker for the amusement of walkers as they pass by my ancestral homeland near the end of their Journey.
 Hadrian’s Wall looking South showing the Wall and Ditch; the space between is the Berm where the 3 lines of postholes marking the earlier Timber Wall are found.  [NB. The berm is not for structural stability [doh!], or for Cippi, which were branches and logs with branches attached buried in a ditch].[2] 

Hadrian's Wall very important to our region, and Past preservers contribution to public understanding through the media is a significant to all in the heritage industry - so Join or support Nigel- Please Donate today.

More about this and Nigel's excellent Past Preservers team here and Here 



The Vallum passing Down Hill, not a defensive feature or a boundary ditch, but quite clearly a 20’ wide construction trench, with the spoil placed in parallel revetted heaps about 30’ to either side, which was intended to be a road; it was left unfinished following the disruption of Wall construction by warfare.

Notes and Further Reading;
[1]Wor -  "Our" in Geodie   http://www.geordie.org.uk/translate.htm
http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/sounds/case-studies/geordie/lexis/
[2] Caius Julius Caesar "De Bello Gallico" and Other Commentaries English translation by W. A. MacDevitt, introduction by Thomas De Quincey (1915)  [LXXIII]
http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/10657 

31 August, 2014

Roundhouse Psychosis

In the previous post I explained why the large Wessex style “roundhouse” as illustrated and rebuilt is a fiction which is not supported by the evidence.  To be fair to all concerned, it never was a “peer reviewed” idea, but like the artists reconstruction that decorate the front of some archaeological texts, it has a far greater impact on our collective perception of the past than any sterile rendition of the evidence. 
The problem is that Roundhouses are more than just infotainment, a bit of harmless hokum for Joe Public, they are taken seriously, not only by those who commission and build them, but also by academics, and even fellow archaeologists who are obliged to shape their reports around this simplistic construct.  While dumbing down the academic system lightens everybody’s load, it is not good for the long term mental health of the profession, who have responsibility with ‘doing’ the day to day archaeology.  We like to think what we do is meaningful, making a contribution, and that we are collectively getting somewhere, it is about the only reward you will get.
As a field archaeologist, writing up sites, I had realised that the simplistic roundhouse only made sense if ignored a lot of the actual evidence from these structures, and, the majority of the structural features from elsewhere on the site.  Furthermore, those aspects of the evidence that reflected the archaeology of other published sites [roundhouses] were deemed particularly significant, reinforcing the cycle of belief.  Thus, apart from square four post granaries, circles are generally the only acceptable shape for a prehistoric buildings; both excavation and post-excavation were approached with same expectation, and to some extent purpose, of finding roundhouses.

17 August, 2014

Debunking the Iron Age Round House

Is Prehistory is more or less bunk ?
In 1916, when archaeology was in its infancy, the industrialist Henry Ford expressed the view that History is more or less bunk, so what he would have made of Prehistory would probably have been unprintable.[1]  However, perhaps as an engineer, his concerns were elsewhere, solving the problems in the present and helping to mould the future.
In his remark, we might perceive a fundamental dichotomy of science v arts, but while this is clearly simplistic, there is a certain resonance for archaeology which sits, sometimes uncomfortably, between the two. Much of what is important, incisive and certainly less bunk in archaeology originally came from outside, from the borrowing of scientific techniques from other disciplines.  Further, in Henry Ford’s prejudice one might also perceive a divergence between practical v theoretical, or practitioners v academics; for archaeology, the latter are often from an “arts background”, and by creating the past in their own image, have divested Prehistory of its engineers, architects, builders; a prehistoric built environment fabricated almost entirely from bunk.
In the West, Archaeology is fairly new discipline, not much older than the motor car, but prehistory is not vital, and so nobody cares if you get it wrong or make it up. Unlike engineering, archaeology can be a faith based study, with objectivity, and even the evidence being secondary, what is important is belief in the narrative and its institutions.  In archaeology things can be true because people believe them, not because they are supported by the evidence. 
This is hard concept to grasp if you come from another discipline, or importantly, if you believe in the intellectual integrity of archaeology, but ideas about ancient building are a classic case in point.

04 August, 2014

On the Death of my Father

 Since April, following the death of my farther after a short illness, I have been unable to write further articles, in part because I have been unable to decide whether it was appropriate to note his passing in my blog.
He was an engineer and academic, a successful and respected member of a community I have not been allowed to join; I would not want to sully his name, or associate him with the ideas that have brought me rejection and failure.
The foregoing only serves to illustrate the problems I have with tone, and why I have struggled for months to find appropriate words and emotions.
If a jobs worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
My Dad was an engineer and a craftsman, who could fix the car and the washing machine; he also contributed to development of the modern jet engine.  He created our house from four abandoned cottages, and growing up on a partial building site with a workshop I learnt to understand woods, metals, stone, and their tools, as over the years saw a building stripped down and rebuilt. While none of this dictated that I should end up trying reverse engineering ancient structures from their foundations, it did teach me patience; archaeology, like engineering, is a largely a long term and non-repetitive working pattern.  Engineers seeks real solutions that work, but above all, he taught me he taught me to question everything I did, and ask could it be done be done better?

28 March, 2014

#BlogArch – Where is it all leading?

Over at Doug’s Archaeology Blog the final question for next month’s #blogarch SAA session on blogging is where are you going with blogging or would you it like to go? 
While having spent half my lifetime working on this methodology, I have always had an end in mind, but what I have deduced from this research was utterly unexpected. The ideal end product was always envisaged as a 3D CAD model, and the internet is now the obvious place to present one. But, to cut to the chase, the core of the issue is Peer Review; While it is technically possible to publish a 3D presentation on the internet, how do you peer review a CAD Model?
While Universities are the natural forum for research, reverse engineering structures was never going to work at a zombie department like Newcastle who had even thrown their CAD system away; and my work was branded worthless by their “cosmologist”.  [Caveat emptor]
Ironically, the subsequent decision to blog my research made it worthless, for nothing provided for free has value in terms of the academic system.  Furthermore, it had become apparent that any research that challenges the existing commercial narrative will never be supported by any of the existing stakeholders.
Originally, Iron Age Roundhouses were a key focus, but since most people imagine they have seen one, this is probably now beyond rational redemption.  However, blogging has allowed me to follow a variety of entirely different routes, and to challenge the rationality aspects of peer reviewed Roman archaeology.  The idea of peer review is that it is a firewall that keeps the nonsense out, although in reality it can serve to protect and perpetuate the nonsense already inside.

Quick Case Study; The Archaeology of Stupid Scottish People
As a result of my work on Hadrian's Timber Wall, a colleague sought my opinion on the "Lilia" at Rough Castle, a Roman Fort on the Antonine Wall in Scotland,  I was not entirely convinced, but I have reserved judgment, - for several years.

05 February, 2014

Ramparts and Ditches - the Roman Killing Zone

 Recognizing the Timber Wall and Ditch, predating the more familiar Hadrian’s Wall, highlighted central importance of timber engineering to the Roman army in the field and took this research in an unexpected direction.
While many Roman military installations are identified by their bank and ditch, as archaeological remains they are often somewhat underwhelming, certainly compared with some hill forts, but history attests to their success in withstanding assault.  
The tactics behind these structures can be explored by using a simple SketchUp model of the sort of rampart and ditch described by Caesar[1], which can help illustrate how could a 12' high pile of wood with a ditch in front could stop whole armies.

20 January, 2014

#BlogArch Carnival; Most Significant post? Hadrian’s Timber Wall

This month’s question posed for the participants in the blog archaeology Carnival over Doug’s Archaeology is fairly flexible, I have chosen; what was your most significant post?
Archaeological Blogging; Inadmissible Evidence
In terms of its significance, Hadrian’s Timber Wall is the post that stands out, as it encapsulates everything about this blog and why I created it. 
It is not even in the top 10 most read posts, or as contentious as those about Class Ei buildings like Stonehenge [1], but the Timber Wall was a totally new concept, an unexpected research bonus, which got worldwide publicity.  From the blogosphere via my local paper the Hexham Courant, it found its way into various media including the BBC and even made cameo appearance on the History Channel.  Recently, I met someone who had been involved at the time, who was surprised that it had not made my career; sadly, it probably had quite the opposite effect.
Until July 2008 I was unaware that there were postholes in front of Hadrian’s Wall, but this was precisely the type of evidence I had been researching, and,  intrigued by their layout, I took a close look at them. The result was a rather scruffy analysis of the Buddle St postholes which I circulated among colleagues at TWM and Newcastle University, [reproduced in Appendix below]. This was genesis of the Timber Wall, and for a fleeting moment I imagined there was a possibility of it being part of the 60th Anniversary Limes Conference, to be hosted by Tyne and Wear Museums with the University the following year.
It was never going to happen; whatever the merits of the case, the latter had effectively blackballed me, and, while the former had subsequent made me redundant, far more importantly, TWM was the proponent of the theory that these postholes represented a system of obstacles [or cippi] [2,3].  Whereas archaeology in the field is about team work, academic life is not, and those who contribute to the existing Roman Wall narrative didn't appreciate an uncalled for contribution from an outsider rocking their navicula.

14 January, 2014

The archaeology of the Imaginary Spaces

One of the first things you learn as an archaeologist is that “History” is the study of specialist artefacts involving writing and other forms of recording, and that “Prehistory” is marked by the absence of such material. There is period we call “Proto-history”, in which “Prehistoric” issues are alluded to in later documents, providing plenty of scope for conjecture; ideas like “Druids” inhabit these spaces, along with more peripheral characters like Merlin and Arthur.
Narrative History on the BBC Television is a cultural phenomenon in its own right, and while Prehistory has always had the attraction of the mysterious, and offers the potential of a “Detective Story” format, in reality it has no recognisable narratives. Thus, I was very rude about “The History of Ancient Britain” series’ attempt to manufacture one, and so I greet the news of Neil Oliver's  “Sacred Wonders of Britain” with some degree of scepticism.   However, Neil is keen to get his retaliation in first;
 “We were at all times sensitive to one absolute truth – that it is quite impossible to put yourself in the mind of a Neolithic farmer, or to understand the thinking of an Iron Age druid.”

Good; this did seem to be lacking from the last outing into the past. However, as the program promises an exploration of Prehistoric sacredness, I suspect there is going to be a “but” in there somewhere.  Luckily there are experts on hand; in academia you get the “truth” you pay for.

07 January, 2014

Forthcoming 2014 Digital Exploration Season; Modelling Stonehenge and Edwin Harness.

Blogging your own research does allow you to preview what is coming up in future posts, and demonstrate despite the long gaps between posts you are still alive and kicking. [1]
My main in 2014 focus will be presenting 3D CAD models of Prehistoric roofed structures using Sketchup.
When I started building CAD Models of archaeological structures in 1990, it would have been quicker to build them in balsawood, and I little dreamt that one day a tool like Sketchup would not only run on a standard desktop, but also be available for free.
At present I am working on several [competing] fronts, with active models of Stonehenge, and an interesting Native American Building at the Edwin Harness Mound. In addition, I hope to do some additional work on Roman Military engineering structures, as well as Neolithic Longhouses should the opportunity arise. The problem that there is so much I have still to publish; among the built environments I have looked at in detail is a Romano British pottery at Orsett and Bronze Age fort which has a huge forge with a smoke bay.  However, as my work on Natïve American architecture demonstrates, you never what opportunities for collaboration may arise.
In this post I want to focus mainly on practical methodologies in 3D modelling of timber structures from archaeological ground plans.

14 December, 2013

Blog Carnival ; What is the good, the bad, and the Ugly of Blogging?


Over at his Archaeology Blog, Doug has posted the fantastic response to Why Blog Archaeology? He has also posed the latest question for the Blogging Archaeology at the 2014 SAA Conference Blog Carnival - What is the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Blogging Archaeology?
The Good and the Bad form a nice clear dialectic, for the path of blogger has both yin and yang; it has satisfied my desire to express myself; however, this  has also become a burden, a duty, and a source of guilt. Blogging has empowered me, but with power has come responsibility; while blogging may be free, it is also by the same token valueless. It is seen as something light and transient, but its presence may be permanent and its effects long lasting.
As for the Ugly - it is rather lost without the Beautiful, rendering the question a little unbalanced, as one of the ancients put it;

02 December, 2013

Blog Carnival; Archaeological Blogging – Why?

Over at Doug’s Archaeology Blog, Doug has organised a Blog Carnival about Archaeological Blogging. His open gambit was to ask the question why blog? And further why are you still Blogging?
Why blogging?
In many respects Theoretical Structural Archaeology is a statistical outlier, in that it presents original archaeological research from outside the academic system. Moreover, since it is evidence based metrical research into postholes, the most common of all archaeological features and central to understanding of ancient built environments, why is it being blogged?
Primarily, this blog is about empowerment of the individual to publish their research, however, it has to be said that the medium quite suits the visual nature of the subject, and its interactive nature has fostered some interesting collaborations.
It's a tale of exciting discoveries, dastardly deeds, betrayal, hope, friendship, and much raging against the machine, read on . . . . . .

08 October, 2013

Understanding more about Stonehenge as a Building

As the New Stonehenge interpretation centre  nears completion at a cost of £27 million *, I thought I should go a a little more detail about my understanding of the peculiar circumstances surrounding this unique building.
In a previous series of articles I have explained the disposition of the site’s postholes in terms of the overall layout of other Class Ei buildings [1, 2].
However, the actual construction sequence offers an explanation why the archaeology of this most intensively studied site has proved so confusing.

23 August, 2013

Starting to model Woodhenge in Google SketchUp

The Story so far
Since I decided to blog this research five years ago, one recurrent theme has been my attempts to understand the largest class of prehistoric buildings Class Ei. [1] This includes Durrington Walls, the Sanctuary, Mount Pleasant, Stonehenge, and Woodhenge, the latter being the most interesting as a result of its non-circular plan.
When, as a result of Tim Darvill’s 1996 paper, [1], I first considered Class Ei buildings, I was initially very sceptical of their scale; I had been working on IA roundhouses where there were clear engineering limits, and these appeared to break my rules for timber structures.   
Against this, I began the compilation of a list of characteristics that indicated they were buildings. While the technical insight that resolved this dilemma probably came from studying the engineering of earlier Longhouses, ultimately, progress comes from breaking down your preconceptions by building models that don’t work. I took the unusual step of actually publishing some the models that had not worked in order to demonstrate why it was necessary to create a more complex solution.
It is harder than you might imagine to deduce from the evidence, rather than simply impose ideas on it.

'...when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'
Sherlock Holmes –
The Blanched Soldier, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1927

19 July, 2013

Study archaeology in the North East; a new MA in Heritage Management at Durham

The region is exceptionally fortunate to have one of the world’s top universities, and its students are equally lucky be able to study in a beautiful historic city, in an area with a reasonable cost of living.
I would like to take the opportunity to promote my region as a place to study archaeology, and in particular draw the reader's attention to a new MA in Heritage Management at Durham University. 

"We have designed this degree to build upon our unique situation, living and working within a World Heritage Site - you will explore the concepts underlying the idea of cultural heritage and investigate the social, political, and economic impact of a variety of local, national, and international heritage organisations."

19 June, 2013

Hadrian's Timber Wall; Reverse engineering a Roman rampart in Google SketchUp

Caesar’s account of the war in Gaul contain over forty references to ramparts, some native, but mostly those built of timber with a ditch in front constructed by his army in the field. [1] I have argued that the three lines of double postholes with a ditch in front to the north of Hadrian Wall represent such a rampart.
Recently, I have been trying out Google SketchUp as tool to explore the engineering of this structure, and express structural ideas visually.  In a previous article I have discussed the issues of visual representations of the past, as distinct from models and diagrams.

CAD and the Archaeology of postholes
I bought my first CAD system in 1990, using it for my work in Essex, and subsequently offered my services to all the archaeological units and trusts working in England at the time; there were no takers.
However, I had also realised that as a tool in my attempts to understand the evidence of prehistoric posthole structures, CAD was not yet the answer.  It was not just that it was slow, a 486DX 25 MHz computer running at would take 12 hours to print a shaded view, but even more critically, putting a cone on cylinder and calling it a roundhouse did not advance my understanding, it was simply an aid to drawing more accurate ‘artistic’ reconstructions.

07 June, 2013

Professor Wallace-Hadrill interviewed about Herculaneum at Ideas Roadshow

Theoretical structural archaeology is about understanding the evidence of ancient built environments, and previously I have written about the importance of those sites ‘frozen in time’ by some disaster preserving buildings and content in situ.
For the Roman world, Herculaneum and Pompeii give us that unique insight, a level of detail, unimaginable in conventional archaeology, which has become central to our understanding of the period.  While we are familiar with plaster body castes, dramatic reconstructions, and looming clouds of volcanic death, quite what this really means to archaeology, archaeologists and everybody else is a lot more complex, nuanced, and interesting.

30 April, 2013

Hadrian’s bridging of the North Tyne

PreviouslyI have discussed the evidence for a temporary timber and earth rampart with associated infrastructure which necessarily predated and facilitated the construction of Hadrian’s Wall in stone, it follows that there was probably a temporary bridge where it crossed the North Tyne at Chollerford, [Chesters].

In addition, unlike a timber bridge built on piles, the construction of a Stone bridge also requires significant temporary works, which are evident from the air.

28 March, 2013

Hadrian's Ghost Wall

The key to understanding Hadrian’s Wall is that the Romans built a temporary frontier of wood in the East, and wood and earth in the West, to protect them while they constructed the permanent stone frontier. It follows that there would also be temporary forts and other structures amounting to a whole ghost timber and earth version of Hadrian’s Wall.

15 March, 2013

Red Nose Archaeology


Today is red nose day - for Comic Relief a charity event organised by British comedians.
Archaeology is one those subjects traditionally associated with drinking, it was one of the few compensations for low wages, poor working conditions, and zero career prospects, although quite why well paid academics should be red noses has never been fully explained.

27 February, 2013

Understanding the Neolithic Longhouse


Archaeology is recorded in diagrams
All pictures of a Neolithic Longhouse are imaginary; generally, all that remains are the archaeological plans of their foundations, however, it is possible to produce a theoretical model of the form of engineering that fits the nature of this data.
Prior to the advent of digital recording systems large amounts of information were routinely recorded by visual representation in the form of hand drawn plans and sections.  Structural archaeology takes these diagrams and extends them into a ‘theoretical’ three dimensional space; in some respects these models are as accurate as the original plan.
Theoretical structural archaeology is theoretical because it based on measurements and ideas that can be expressed as diagrams and models which are the best fit for an imperfect data set.  This fit tends to improve with further study and this article represents an updating of my previous articles.

18 February, 2013

The North South Divide


On a day that our Deputy Prime minister Nick Clegg has talked about rebalancing the North South economic divide my friend and fellow blogger Michael Anderson has very kindly posted a joint article about the Wall.
Mike Anderson's Ancient History Blog looks at the ancient world in terms of what the past teaches us about the present. I rather stole Michael’s thunder and wrote about Geography of the North South divide, and it’s resonance through history.
" . .Emasculating the north and overburdening the south .. . “
Deputy Prime minister Nick Clegg.

13 February, 2013

Doubt, and the archaeology of the imagined past.

 One thing that was apparent at the CAA conference [Computer Applications in Archaeology]  at Southampton, was the ability of our current technology to produce any image we can imagine with a remarkable degree of realism.  The look of the past, the shared visual culture, is commercially important to the entertainment industry, and in some senses is the end product offered to consumers of archaeology as infotainment.  As a structural archaeologist, while I am groping towards an understanding of how a Neolithic longhouse was engineered, the one thing I am certain of is that I don’t know what a building ‘looked’ like.
So, given the ability to visually express anything we can imagine - how do we express doubt?

21 December, 2012

Inside the mind of a New Archaeologist

In my view, the inability of conventional archaeology to interpret the majority of the excavated evidence from prehistoric sites, in particular postholes, has led to development of “New” archaeology, where academics study and become experts in those aspects of culture we don’t find.  In those countries like Netherlands and Germany, where their archaeology is better understood, their narrative of the Neolithic is generally  about agriculture, while in Britain it is more often expressed in terms of the perceptions, beliefs, rituals, personhood, and cosmologies.

31 May, 2012

TSA at CAA2012

The highlight of my year so far was being invited to give a paper at the 40th Computer Applications in Archaeology conference hosted by the University Southampton .  Firstly, I should thank James Miles for inviting me,  my parents for funding it, and the University for Southampton  for putting on a tremendous conference; it has restored my faith in academic archaeology.

This is the abstract of my paper;

Over twenty years ago, I bought a computer and CAD software, only to discover that it took hours to print a shaded view of an Iron Age roundhouse, and besides, sticking a cone on top of a cylinder did nothing to advance my understanding of the archaeology of prehistoric timber buildings. So I returned to the basic data and to working on paper in plan, section, and elevation.
Prehistoric structures in Britain are largely evidenced by postholes, often in such numbers, that most archaeologists are content to pick out circles and rectangles on which to base their report, and ignore the rest of the dataset.  However, thinking about structures in terms of ’shape’ has led to simplistic models and inappropriate cross-cultural comparisons.
My research into understanding postholes has concentrated on reverse engineering timber structures from the known position of their posts, which ultimately leads to a consideration of how timbers were joined together.  Initially, I worked back from the medieval period, but more recently, I have worked forward from LBK buildings, which are the starting point for the range of technologies that both require, and support, complex built environments.
Modelling the relationship between an archaeological ground plan and the original superstructure requires a detailed consideration of tools, carpentry, building technology, and trees. It leads to ideas like offset jointing, reversed assembly, and importance of ties, unfamiliar concepts to most archaeologists.  However, with such ideas comes a basic set of principles that both explain the spatial distribution of archaeological features, and are a guide to the use of CAD to reconstruct and understand prehistoric architecture on a timber-by-timber basis.
Understanding the basics of posthole archaeology, and the technological culture it represents, unlocks the potential of CAD systems a research tool, making it possible to reconstruct buildings from LBK longhouses to Woodhenge in virtual reality.

As far as I could tell it when in the room, - nobody threw anything or walked out, and more generally delegates  coped fairly well with my enthusiasm for my  subject.  Encapsulating twenty years of research in 20mins was never going to be easy.
The quality and range of papers was excellent, and in some ways quite overwhelming, illustrating the application of IT to wide range of research going on throughout the world.
In stark contrast to my own recent experiences of academic archaeology, I was very impressed with all aspects of Southampton University, particularly by their ability to create research groups across departments, utilising knowledge and technology from a range of disciplines.
Particularly  gratifying was the emphasis on evidence based archaeology, everyone I met among this gathering of international archaeologists seemed to share my view that making up cosmologies, beliefs, and rituals was not an appropriate methodology for explaining complex archaeological datasets.
So, once again I would like to thank the staff and students at the University of Southampton  for their hospitality, and for what it is worth, I would heartily  recommend it as a place to study archaeology.



23 March, 2012

Twelve reasons why Stonehenge was a building

Stonehenge was a building.  That’s it, no mystery. If it was a rectangle this would not be an issue, but British Prehistoric buildings are predominantly circular from this period onward. 
The rings of postholes at Stonehenge [Y, Z, Q, and R holes] are often ignored, or are thought to be redundant stone holes, but it is just one of a group of concentric timber structures known from various periods in British Prehistory.  Like Woodhenge, Durrington Walls, Mount Pleasant, and The Sanctuary, Stonehenge was a large timber building.  This was tentatively recognised by Tim Darvil in 1996, who called them Class Ei structures.[1]  

14 March, 2012

Exciting developments at Flag Fen


As a rule, this site is about my own research into the archaeology of the built environment, but I was asked if I could do my bit to aid a new project at Flag Fen; since this is one of the most important sites the country, I am happy to oblige, and I am sure readers may also want to help support this project.
I have written about the international importance of sites like Biscupin and Vindolanda, and Flag Fen ranks among these, and now there is an opportunity to get involved, make a contribution, and experience real archaeology.   

22 February, 2012

Hadrian's First Wall - Free download


I am making my research into the earth and timber phase of Hadrian's Wall, covered in the previous three posts, available as a convenient electronic or printable copy. 
Since this amounts to 12,500 words, with 48 of illustrations, it is perhaps too cumbersome to work well as an on-line article.  I hope this may prove useful to those readers who interested in the archaeology of this period.  Please feel free to distribute it as you think fit.

Hadrian’s First Wall


24 January, 2012

Hadrian’s First Wall Part 3 of 3

On Tyneside, between Hadrian’s Wall and the Ditch to the north, archaeologists have found three lines of double postholes, which, it is argued, represent an early Timber Wall, that along with the Ditch, formed part of a temporary frontier while Hadrian’s Wall was being built. Further, it is argued that the Turf Wall represents the continuation of this structure in the western sector of the Wall. In addition, when the engineering and layout of the Vallum is examined, it appears to be an unfinished road, probably abandoned when warfare interrupted work on the Wall. These insights into the archaeology of Roman military engineering are the key to a new understanding how and why Hadrian’s Wall was built.


An updated summary of a series of articles from this site on the timber and earth structures predating Hadrian’s stone Wall.


Presented in three parts:






3. The Construction of the First Wall

Hadrian’s First Wall [Part 2 of 3]

On Tyneside, between Hadrian’s Wall and the Ditch to the north, archaeologists have found three lines of double postholes, which it is argued, represent an early Timber Wall, which, along with the Ditch, formed part of a temporary frontier while Hadrian’s Wall was being built. Further, it is argued that the Turf Wall represents the continuation of this structure in the western sector of the Wall.  In addition, when the engineering and layout of the Vallum is examined, it appears to be an unfinished road, probably abandoned when warfare interrupted work on the Wall. These insights into the archaeology of Roman military engineering are the key to a new understanding how and why Hadrian’s Wall was built.
An updated  summery of a series of articles from this site on the timber and earth structures predating Hadrian’s stone Wall.
Presented in three parts:
2. Reverse engineering the Vallum