26 October, 2014

Posthole Archaeology; Function, Form and Fighting

In the previous post I posed the question what buildings does a moderately complex hierarchical agricultural society require, looking at aspects of agricultural buildings; this time I am looking at moderately complex hierarchical society, or at least that end of hierarchy that tends to represented in archaeology.
It is fashionable, and perhaps progressive, to talk of higher status individuals or elites, to avoid cultural bias inherent such terms as aristocracy.   However, I use the term in its original cultural context precisely to reference that bias, or understanding, and also is to imply a degree of continuity between Prehistory and History.
I am going to look particularly at the Late Iron Age fort at Orsett, Essex, [1] now lost to the latest incarnation of the junction it guarded 2000 years ago. [below].  It typifies all the problems of interpretation associated with archaeology that has been ploughed. It was clearly a fortification at some stage, and only the aristocracy, have the resources, interest and right to build such things. Systematic and sustained fighting, takes considerable resources, training and expensive kit. It was after all, what maintained them at the top of the divinely sanctioned heap, and some might argue it was their raison d’etre.
The Orsett "Cock" Roundabout looking South; A13 crossed by A128.
Archaeology is often uncomfortable with this notion of class, it plays havoc with the simplistic way we view the distribution of material culture, especially since historically, our masters have often had a different origin from the rest of us.
In all the arts, including architecture and war, the aristocracy are over represented, since these things define the nature of their culture, and reinforce their essential otherness from ordinary people.
Throughout all Gaul there are two orders of those men who are of any rank and dignity [Nobles and Druids]: for the commonality is held almost in the condition of slaves, and dares to undertake nothing of itself, and is admitted to no deliberation. The greater part, when they are pressed either by debt, or the large amount of their tributes, or the oppression of the more powerful, give themselves up in vassalage to the nobles, who possess over them the same rights without exception as masters over their slaves.
Julius Caesar;The Gallic Wars, book VI, chapter 13 [2]

The cache of Iron Age Spearheads from the Slighted defences of the Orsett Fort.
The Warring Class
The History of Britain, at least until 17th or 18th centuries, is an account of a violent and often internecine dispute between the ruling families of the country for control of its wealth, part of wider pattern involving Western Europe and beyond.  While it might be somehow satisfying to put this grim historical narrative down to the advent of Latin or Christianity, in reality, one has to presume similar processes were happening in ‘prehistory’.
Historically, we can find a narrative thread that links and explains these processes, but this makes no sense in terms of the data that archaeology deals with; it is far to complex. Consider 1066; on January 5th the English king Edward the Confessor [left [3]] died childless, and Harold Godwinson, the earl of Wessex, seized the throne of England, prompting two foreign invasions; against the odds he defeats and kills King Harald Hardrada of Norway, only to be killed himself by William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, on October 14th at the Battle of Hastings.  One of the largest and richest countries in Europe, with a population of at least 1.5 million, had been taken over with an army of less than 10,000, and now had a Norman French Duke as King,  its 3rd head of state in a year.
The point of this simplistic account is to illustrate that archaeology is too crude a tool to grapple the movements and activities of an aristocracy, who are responsible for many of the more exceptional archaeological remains we find.  A thousand years earlier, they had faced a catastrophe, as the Roman aristocracy inserted their army into politics of Western Europe.  
Fighting the Fight
It might be argued the Roman army was developed in part as response to the style of warfare practiced by the “Celtic” tribes to their north.  Their systematic approach took full advantage of the practicalities of iron in the design of their arms and armour, coupled with superb military engineering and ballistics which overturned the certainties of centuries of warfare.

The excavation at Orsett showing all features and others dotted in from areal photographs, compared for scale with St James Park Newcastle[4].
With the benefit of hindsight, the small fort at Orsett was never going stop a Roman Army, but most groups put up a fight, it was what you did, although only the most foolhardy did it more than once.
I am going to look particularly at the fort at Orsett, because it typifies all the problems with the interpretation associated with archaeology that has been ploughed, which impair our understanding previously unknown built environments.

Orsett Enclosures visible on an areal photograph prior to their excavation [left] and subsequent destruction under modern network [right]; looking South.
The Late Iron a Age site at Orsett [Cock], a site named after the pub in more innocent times before the advent of the search engine, although it was tempting fate even then.   It is now the Orsett Cock Roundabout, which occasionally makes a guest appearance in the Essex traffic news.
It is a typical British archaeological site, defined by large enclosure ditches discovered by aerial photography and subsequently threatened with destruction by development.
The response [then as now] was to mount a rescue excavation; "rescue" is an important concept, conveying an element of underfunded last ditched desperation typical of these projects.  As usual, the excavation team then dispersed, leaving the site director to write a brief interim report, before he left archaeology. [5] The resulting drawings, photographs , context cards and finds then languished for a while with Essex County council, adding to national backlog of unpublished excavations; rescuing always takes priority, and there is no shortage of archaeology being destroyed.   The pottery was part processed, and swamped by the products of four [known] Romano British pottery kilns.   Not untypically, there were problems with specialist reports, the teeth and bone had been lost along with other finds on route to a specialist. 
But there is actually a much deeper problem with Orsett; this sort of site is easy to excavate but difficult to understand, and report on, presenting some of most complex interpretive puzzles in archaeology.  
Unknown unknowns; super-complex archaeology.
While deep stratified urban archaeology is infinity more challenging to excavate, it can be easier to interpret precisely because it has stratigraphy which gives a chronological sequence around which an understanding and relationships can be built.  The site at Orsett is typical of a ploughed rural site:`
  • Plough reduced – no stratigraphy;
  • Large areas of site damaged/ obliterated;
  • Parts of site not available;
  • Concentration on main crop mark;
  • Most of the features are postholes.
An all features site plan of Orsett site showing the limited sample available for study.
Conventional dating with pottery or radiocarbon does not really apply to postholes, and without stratigraphy there are no real relationships.  Another important consideration is alignment; certain periods tend to have similarly aligned structures, which, if you can find them, can be a useful observation. 
The sites largest features, the ditches, have to form something of a spine for understanding as they do have some stratigraphic relationships, and lots of pottery which was probably deposited deliberately. However, the ditches are also part of the problem, because they were mostly a single phase event that destroyed an unknown number of earlier features including  boundaries. Since the “site” is defined by the ditches, the extent and nature of surrounding archaeology is yet another unknown. Usually, these larger ditches are not fully excavated, and in addition, it is often difficult to detect small features like postholes dug into this type of context.
Numerically, postholes are main type of evidence; of the 1300 features recorded there were 780 postholes and 100 stake holes, only  about 30 were clearly associated with the main roundhouse. [Left; a typical 10m square of Orsett archaeological plan].  Looked at as a data set, we have data from unknown number of subsets [structures], which may not be complete; this is unknown unknowns territory [6].
In terms of a jigsaw puzzle, the site is a bag of pieces, which come from an unknown number of jigsaws, which are probably not be complete, all without a Box.  Conventionally, the approach is to  find all the blue bits, and discard the rest; and while we have yet to distinguish between water and sky, post processional archaeology is making progress through an understanding of the significance of blueness. 
The problem arises because have allowed ourselves only a limited range of templates to interpret this data, we look for circles, [blue bits] largely ignoring the rest; a circle is a roundhouse, a simplistic hut; we can paint a picture; job done.
Thus, I inherited an archive of slightly soiled records, and an interim report that had identified three circular buildings, the defences and Romano-british kilns.  As the person responsible for preparing the final account of the site, I tried, but mostly failed to understand it;  the majority of the features had no real explanation and contribute nothing to the picture.  I might just be better at it now, but I have had 20 years to think about it, and time to develop theoretical structural archaeology.
The Story thus far.
What the report concludes about the history of the site was very roughly;
  • Phase I - Middle Iron Age Polygonal building and Pottery
  • Phase II - Late Iron Age Square Enclosure [Fort].
  • Phase III - [Conquest Period] Multi-ditch Fort
  • Phase IV - [Romano-British C 1st ]  Occupation / Farm Buildings
  • Phase V - [Romano-British C 2nd] Occupation / Farm Buildings
  • Phase VI - [Romano-British Late C 2nd - C 4th] Occupation / Farm Buildings? / Pottery Kilns
  • Phase VII - [Early Saxon] Small Buildings [Grubenhauser]
  • Phase VII –[Post-Saxon] Gravel extraction.

The Late Iron Age / Early Romano British phases II-III at Orsett
The conquest period [III] fort was short lived, with a palisade trench and a complex sequence of ditches, which probably resulted from a change of plan over the inclusion of the earlier square enclosure [II].   Most interestingly, these were rapidly backfilled, and in the southern corner there was with burnt material and a cache of Iron Age Spear heads.  All this could tell an interesting story; a local Trinovantian leader fortifying the strategic crossroads against the advancing Romans.  
Did they fight, or did they surrender and then slight their own defences?
Form and Forts 
Any detailed understanding of this part of the story, hits the same basic problem; leaving aside the three circular buildings, without identifying structures it is hard to contextualise the fort, or distinguish between built environments from before, during or after the fort.
All this is in stark contrast to our understanding of Roman forts, which are an exemplar, however,  the form of any fortification is governed by the same general considerations in this period.  In terms of a built environment I would expect the following buildings and structures to be present in some form;  
  • Perimeter
  • Fortified Gateway
  • Watch towers
  • H.Q. 
  • Barracks  
  • Forge 
  • Granaries
  • Cookhouse
  • Stables
Clearly, at least the last four are common to large farm or high status dwelling, but at Orsett we had only 3 recognised buildings to work with; and if the main roundhouse [S9] is the H.Q., was it is a normal Roundhouse? Beyond this, understanding is mired in the complexity of unknowns in the built environments which may or may not have existed before and after the brief episode of the fort.
The Perimeter is the most important concept in a fortification, and following the basic principle that a chain is only a strong as its weakest link, its scale and construction method should be;
  • Defendable with the manpower available;
  • Credible to deal with expected threat.
By calculating various manpower models it was possible to estimate both the scale and the resources required to construct the fort. [below].  It was possible to estimate it would take at least 30 – 40 men a month to build the defences, which must be close to the minimum required to defend it, and excludes the gateway and acquisition of timber, and of course the construction of an unknown numbers of unknowns.  
An interpretive plan of the Orsett Fort entrance structure 

The entrance appeared to take the form of a heavy gate hidden behind a baffle to present direct assault, which leads to a narrow passage between rampart and a structure to the left of the gate.  [It was normal to reinforce or put towers to the left of gate to attack the unshielded right side of the attackers].  This entrance is scarcely four foot wide, very defensive, and quite unlike the Roman approach. 
The ditches themselves give material for the rampart, and present the attackers 18m of broken ground which make it harder for to keep in formation and discharge javelins [Pilum].  
To sum up; to understand the nature site before the construction of the defences is difficult without a clear boundary, and it is therefore hard to detect the nature and extent of any existing built environment, and distinguish its structures from those associated with the defences or subsequent occupation. Too many unknown unknowns.

An interpretive section and elevation of the Orsett Fort entrance structure.
Fighting till the end.
Not surprisingly, I see the site differently now, I had inherited a set of ideas that had their own momentum; some things I got wrong, mostly where I followed conventional wisdom and looked to other similar sites for parallels.  The problem is that Orsett, like all significant sites, is unique, so parallels not going to get you very far.  
There were roundish things, all three are unique, but a vague circularity is all that is required for a “roundhouse” which are proof of prehistoric “occupation”, which any amount of rubbish pits and postholes are not, without circles it’s just “activity”.  It is the circular logic of this tightening spiral of self-referential scholarship has impaired our understanding of built environments from this and other periods.
I am not sure that I had sufficient experience of this type of site, but you seldom do, as you cannot predict what you will find during excavation or post excavation, or more importantly, if you will ever work again on this type of project.   As Orsett illustrates, conventionally, archaeology is one of those enterprises where you sack everybody at the end of each job, which is no way to run anything that aspired to being a profession.  
However, sacking all the school staff at the end of the year would make education cheaper and prevent the formation of effective “education” lobbies and representation.  It works well for archaeology; thus, on many excavations a significant proportion of staff and workers will be beginners or inexperienced, but driven by low pay, no security or prospects of a career, most leave keeping costs and standards low.  It’s a chronic waste of endeavour and human resources, but archaeology is only important up until the point where the money gets involved.

Reverse engineering models of the Orsett rampart and ditches using spoil volume.

Orsett was the genesis of theoretical structural archaeology, driven my my own inability to progress with what was a tantalisingly significant piece of archaeology, [and more than just a fort].   There was clearly a need for a different set of templates, something more than roundhouses, not just for the Iron Age but also for Romano-British timber buildings outside of towns and villas, and those associated with the Romano-British Pottery whose product turned up on Hadrian's Wall. [7]
I consider that the difficulties of interpretation associated super-complex archaeology like Orsett and numerous other sites is part of the reason academic archaeology went in the direction of post-processualism, with its emphasis on the study of what archaeologist don't find.  As a result, there has been little appreciation of the fundamental inadequacies of current thinking about built environments, or any systematic effort to address the problem. 
Thus, an evidence based approach to modelling and reverse engineering timber structures represented by theoretical structural archaeology is destined to remain a post-university study for those who want to understand this aspect of the past.   

Sources and Further Reading
[1] G. A. Carter (1998): 'Excavations at the Orsett ‘Cock’ enclosure, Essex, 1976'. East Anglian Archaeology Report No 86. Illustrated by L.E. Collett
[2] Translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn
http://classics.mit.edu/Caesar/gallic.6.6.html [Accessed 13/04/11]
[5] Toller, H S 1980 `An interim report on the excavation of the Orsett 'Cock' enclosure, Essex: 1976-9' Britannia 11, 1980 35-42
[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/There_are_known_knowns  ; NB. the remark by United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave to a question at a U.S. Department of Defense news briefing in February 2002.
[7] Paul Bidwell pers. com.

26 September, 2014

Posthole archaeology; function, form and farming

By the Bronze Age in British Isles, and certainly in terms of the proto-historic Late Iron Age, we have what historians might call petty kings and aristocracy, sometimes with a more wider regional and national institutions.  Although our museums have their weapons and treasures, architecturally, we have lost sight of the petty king in his palace and the homes of the aristocracy, always such a feature of our countryside.  
But this is just the tip of an iceberg of ignorance, since we know very little of the charcoal burner in his hut, and have no real notion of cart sheds or byres; only “roundhouses”, and, thousands upon thousands of uninterpreted postholes.
It is this functional deficiency that I hope to explore in series of posts, since it represents a serious gap in our knowledge of an area fundamental to understanding any culture.  One way of broadening thinking about function is to ask the question; what buildings does a moderately complex hierarchical agricultural society require? 

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 represent 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....

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! 

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.