19 July, 2015

Deconstructing a Stonehenge "House"

A game of blind house detective
When a reader contacted me to ask my opinion on a reconstruction that was referred to as “the Stonehenge House”, I saw an interesting opportunity for a blind test.  In truth, I had not looked at this, so I requested and received a copy of the archaeological plan from Durrington Walls on which the reconstruction was based. I fully expected to produce a different conclusion since, as an archaeologist, I try to work by deduction, rather than by comparison or projection; it's the difference between astronomy and astrology.
I sent my reply back in just over a day, in the form of the drawing reproduced below.  It was just a quick hack; it has taken a lot longer to write it up for this post, probably because in term as of scale it is more like a Stonehenge Shed, and I have more significant structures I should be working on, but being an Aries, I can’t resist a challenge.   
Regular readers will be aware that I do have serious prejudices about the nature of built environments in this period, which included a large class Ei buildings like “Durrington Walls” [1].  My interest is mainly in this main structure, which  I know was a building, even though only half survives, because I have done the maths; post-processual academics know it is “ritual” because they haven’t.
At the time of writing this I still have not seen what was actually built, although along with the plan had come three bits of information about this particular reconstruction; that it was based on srp_house_851,  which was similar to Skara Brae, and had a thatched “flex” roof.   From these clues, you don’t have to be a Capricorn like Sherlock Holmes to deduce what they are going to happen [2]; the past, is going to get crudely fitted up.   
While you can usually follow Inspector Lestrade's “logic”, it represents a culture of presumption on the basis of previous form, where only evidence that confirms the gilt of the most obvious suspect is considered relevant.  In reality, a lot of archaeological data gets taken round the back, given a good seeing to, and forced to confess; not that I am biased against rude natives in crude huts or vice versa.


Archaeology; Rules of evidence; Astronomy or Astrology? 
It seems to be acceptable, even essential to some academic approaches to project ideas onto the evidence, rather than deduce them from the actual dataset.  
Both astronomers and astrologers study the stars, the former strictly by measurement and deductive reasoning, while the latter also projects ideas onto the heavens, using the authority of traditional belief/faith structures to validate the perceived connection between apparently different classes of evidence.   
In this particular case, ideas not inherent in the data recovered by the archaeologists at Durrington Wall, but taken from Skara Brae, a stone built structure on a treeless island a thousand miles away and roofing technique used by Native Americans will be “projected” onto the evidence.  A bit harsh, but you can’t mix deduction and projection; you end up with radio-astrology, or even astro-archaeology!
While trying to follow a purely deductive process is, in a philosophical sense, an aspiration, it has to start by identifying existing presumptions, and challenging them.  I only looked at the archaeological plan that of the structure referred to on the plan provided as srp_house_851, [Srp = Stonehenge Riverside Project].   While this may be Autocadian idiosyncrasy, "Srp_house_xxx"  is also an interesting and entirely prejudicial use of the word “house”, presumably as in “habitation”;  prompting the question; how was it established that people lived in this particular structure?
However, I am only working with a plan and I would like to know a lot more about the pit / gully complexes, in particularly the slot like features, before I could commit myself.  Normally, structural analysis is logical and can be laid out as a flow diagram where the consequences of different options can be examined and tested against the evidence.   Without all the dataset, I cannot properly test any model in detail, so this is simply an exercise; nor can I gauge how rigorous has been the analysis of the evidence used by the Stonehenge House builders.
However, I think I can show that minor changes in assumptions can radically change logical outcomes, and that answers are conditioned by questions.  It should already be apparent that I am projecting my own expectations onto what I imagine has been built.  I have presupposed that the Stonehenge House builders will have prejudged a number of issues, and that is certainly my blind prejudice at the time of writing.  

Above is the drawing I did a month ago in response to the arrival of the plan; there are details I would change, but with the information available it is as far as I am prepared to go in this particular direction......


Form
Srp 851 was represented by a series of what I was assured were stake holes, [this is crucial],  with an area of chalk floor surrounding a hearth,  apparently features broadly shared other similar structures like Srp 547, although each has its own an individual pattern of associated slots and pits. 
The structure is possibly too small to be properly understood in terms of timber jointing and offset.  At this scale the walls are at least part load bearing, and cob construction has been assumed, especially if only ‘Stakes’ were used; the presence of just a couple of posts can significantly change the way the roof load is distributed.   
Overall, the structure is remarkably regular and it is possible to superimpose quite a regular grid on the plan; this is my initial form of analysis, trying to understand the geometry of the roof from its supporting structure.  The geometry, particularly the strong diagonal alignment and poorly defined corners on the north side suggested a pyramid roof, with ridge and gable on the south side, which is presumed to be of rigid construction.  

The south wall is thicker due to the extra height; it has a door with a porch and window above, with a second window under the apex of the roof, providing light and ventilation.  There is a potential height differential between the pyramid and pitched roof sections allowing for some sort of louvred opening in the apex , which in combination with openings in the gable could control to control smoke ventilation.  There is certainly the potential for a planked first floor on joists running E-W, but much would depend on the function ascribed to the building. 
Knowing that the Stonehenge House builders had opted for a flex solution, and given prejudices about the nature of broader built environment, as well as my recent work with Native American architecture  I went for a ridged structural solution, using cob, and some form of roof truss.   I had not considered a flex roof in this context, although in such an eventuality, this geometry would indicate a dome rather than a pyramid would form the main roof.  
This type of structure begins to look remarkably like a yurt, but just as with Skara Brae, this is structure constructed with different types of materials.  A yurt has a thin lightweight flexible skin; you cannot just add thatch or wattle and daub, and similarly, combining a ridged wall with a flexible roof is not straight forward. 
However, a soft skinned structure would explain why some of the edges of features around the south-west corner coincide with the line of the stake holes marking the "wall"; this would not be expected to occur with cob wall or wattle and daub construction. 
Function
The presence of the hearth tells us that this is a space not used for animals, but it does not follow this was a home; any building in which people spend time will require heat, as do a multitude of other processes.
So let’s cut to the chase with this “House” concept; firstly, this is not necessarily what we would conventionally think of a house, it is small and might equally well be a utility building, an element in a wider built environment. 
Secondly, if you are housed in building this size you are probably at the bottom of whatever social pyramid existed.  Its scale conforms to the smallest of traditional workers cottages, or the sort of buildings built for slaves.   To illustrate this I have included a plan and section of Early C19th agricultural labourers from Kettlebasion in Suffolk, which was built of cob with a thatched roof and a later brick fireplace, [3]  [Left; the image shows the derelict cottage shortly before demolition].   Conversely, an interpretive schematic of a Neolithic Farmhouse, demonstrates the scale of building required to accommodate not only a household, but also all the products and processes necessary for the practice of agriculture.
However, the key issue is the interpretation of the slot like features which define three sides of the floor.  I can imagine that they have been interpreted as furniture, especially given the mention of Skara Brae where slabs of stone set in the ground had been used as the basis of ‘beds‘ and other internal structures.
Furniture is traditionally free standing, and not set in the ground, because it is not load bearing in serious engineering sense, structural stability is usually the only real justification for placing wooden components in the ground. If they represent very heavy fixed benches, bed or bunks, it certainly adds to the impression of accommodation for slaves or perhaps soldiers. 
Putting aside a “house” as a function, it is worth hypothetically considering what other types of buildings fit the evidence; a small building with a heat source, floor, and some potentially load bearing internal structures.  
The hearth takes up a lot of the space, restricting activity to the margins of the building, which would effect the utility of the space, and its potential use for something like a workshop.  As well as warming people, fire is the principle source of heat for drying and processing a very wide range of products, although not all might require a building of this type.   
Returning to the issue of the slots, they are clearly related to the geometry of the building, and have a distinctly offset layout.   My first assumption with earth-fast features is that they are load bearing in an engineering sense; linear features I associate particularly with walls, stairs, and occasionally door frames [thresholds]; most everything else is covered by postholes.
Thus, my first port of call would be a structure like a staircase, in three flights, a half turn with landings, which would have structural implications, the building would be taller, and might need a gable on the north side to explain why the slot is nearer to the north wall, [headroom]. While it would be natural to assume a floor or floors, if the structure was used for smoking meat or fish, the stairs might be for accessing the space; conversely, a function involving drying or malting grain would require a floor.  Just as any possible association with drainage can be understood on the basis of comparative levels, so stairs should be detectable by the depth and profile of the features as well as  their positioning within the building; [without this information this is an exercise].
On the subject of drainage, heavy duty fixtures and fittings may be indicative of significant volumes of liquid, presumably in rectangular troughs, rather than circular vats.  While there are processes such as brewing, dying and washing  fabrics, it is only a bathhouse that might be expected to have rectangular troughs, which is is an intriguing, even subversive suggestion.  
Bigger Pictures
Asking different questions produces different answers, thus I did not expect to agree with the Stonehenge House builders.  In addition, I have the advantage of not actually having to physically realise anything, as well as different understanding Prehistoric timber architecture in this period.  This creates a bias towards a complex multifaceted built environment, which need not presume a conventional domestic function for structures.  While I consider ethnographic comparisons unhelpful and often absurdly simplistic, I do consider the local historical architectural tradition to be guide to the types of buildings used in that environment.   In one sense scale is a reflection of local materials, but also relates to the needs of local economies and social structures; architecture reflects its patronage. 
While there are better and more complete buildings to study, I have taken the opportunity to look at main building at Durrington Walls, for an upcoming article on interlace theory.  I think that it is a domestic building, simply because it has complex geometry, although not as eccentric as Woodhenge. However, once you understand that the built environment contained what we might term full-blow architecture, with buildings built to be as large as technically possible, it radically changes the perception of ancient structures and the society that built them.
While individual buildings should be always considered on their own merit, they are usually part of a wider build environment, were specialist functions and social differentials are represented in a range of types across a geographical area.   
The intent of this approach is to understand the engineering principles behind a structure; with the classes of evidence available, its skin cannot be realised.  While “what it looked like” is what people think they want, once you start imagining the past, the pictures can become more important than the evidence, simply because they are a lot more “real” than the archaeology. 
Smaller Pictures 
Despite an absence of relevant evidence, we have developed a visual culture of the past to which we not in any rational sense entitled. 
It is a sort of iconography; we recognise an image of Jesus which almost certainly bares no relation any potential “Historical” reality.  Just as we make deities in our own image, or rather in the reflection of our own collective imagination, so the realisation of the past often tells more about the state of our visual culture than it does about the past.  
This imaginary world tends to be centred around the “trope” of simplistic prehistoric people with an almost universal primitive tribal culture uniting those who lived in caves, [and fought dinosaurs or wild beasts in their underwear], with those progressing gradually towards the classical period in a series of crude huts built with the minimum of resources or technical input by toolmakers who has yet to master their use.  Not the sort of people to live in a palace or need a bathroom.  
Thus, I fear that the Stonehenge House will be another episode in primitive man’s quest for shelter, which started in the 1940’s with a Little Woodbury reconstruction that looked like it built by Adam and Eve following the fall, [above left], a theme with continued the out of Africa buildings at Butser which inspired a generation of mud huts and rustic gazebos.  
It’s a past as built by students, an advantage that ancient peoples could never have imagined in their wildest dreams; so we imagined it for them. 
While the post-processualists have brought us a landscape full of meaning, sacredness, and similar conceits, it is sadly devoid of functional architecture, illustrating the disadvantages of studying your own imagination.  
The underlying issue is a methodology that detects, compares, and conceptualise archaeological buildings in terms of shape.  This in turn facilitates comparison across space and time, usually with scant regard for geographical context, scale, raw materials, climate and culture.  The archaeological evidence is co-opted to fit ideas and patterns derived from entirely different contexts by ignoring any differences in favour of similarities .  The concept of “reconstruction” can come under significant evidential strain, when it is “based” not on deduction from the evidence, but projection of ideas onto to it; fundamentally, it is the difference between Astronomy and Astrology.

Denouement
At the time of writing I have not looked at what was built; I will leave the article as it stands regardless – as a record of my own prejudice about the contemporary culture of Prehistoric building reconstructions. 
As my own efforts have been limited by lack of detailed information, I can reserve judgement, but that would be cheating.  One the advantages of modelling is that you can be honest about degrees of confidence and fit.
Notwithstanding these limitations, I ought to come clean about what I think about Srp 851; I am not convinced of any particular non-domestic function, although I like the idea of a smoke-house; I cannot make a good case for a stairs, and nor can I justify a bathhouse, which is a shame.  Both the slots and the nature of the floor remain an issue to my mind, as does the complex of features to the west. 
So while I might be prepared to concede some ground on the low value domestic habitation front, worryingly, I am currently unable to find any good argument against Srp 851 being the remains of a temporary soft skinned structure like a yurt.  


How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?
Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.



I think the real thing is here - The Stonehenge Neolithic Houses 

[... and presumably also physically occupying real spacetime somewhere else].  

How Did I do Do?


Sources and Further Reading
[1][1] ’Neolithic houses in northwest Europe and beyond’’ (1996) Neolithic Houses in North-West Europe and beyond (Oxbow monograph 57) [Paperback]. T.C. Darvill (Editor), Julian Thomas (Editor)
[2] Klinger, Leslie (2005). The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. New York: W.W. Norton. p. xlii. ISBN 0-393-05916-2.

[3] McCann, J.,  2000, Clay & Cob Buildings, Album Series Vol. 105 


13 July, 2015

Parish Notices: An exciting new blog, a Blogging Survey with a * Prize * + the future in the Stars

An exciting new blog to visit
For some time I have been discussing some interesting research with Michael Carter of Ryerson University; He has been working on a project to utilise modern graphics engines to build virtual Native longhouses. This site gives a run-down on development of the research;
In particular the current state of the project:
This research touches on a many issues central to the use of modern computer graphics in the realisation of the past.  For my part, I am obliged by the limitation of deductive processes and reverse engineering to sidestep the issue; the intent of my practice is to understand the engineering principles behind a structure, with the classes of evidence available I cannot realistically understand its skin.  This is disappointing, because that is the vision that people think they want.   However, once you start imagining the past, there is a danger that pictures become more important than the evidence, because now they can be a lot more “real” than the archaeology.  For me the expression, recognition and understanding of doubt are significant issues.

Survey with a prize for the lucky winner
I would be grateful if my readers and fellow bloggers would contribute to a survey about archaeology blogs and social media.  It is for Fleur Schinning’s master’s thesis at Leiden University in the Netherlands.  She is hoping that this research will help identify the digital methods that best make archaeology more accessible for a wider public.
She has have set up a questionnaire to ask the visitors a few questions regarding their motives for visiting the blog and so on.
The questionnaire can be completed here:
** All participants also have a chance to win a small prize; 6 issues of Archaeology Magazine! **

Thanks for your help.

24 May, 2015

Understanding Hadrian's Wall - why it all went wrong

What's the big idea?
It is roughly 270 years since a government in Westminster had Hadrian’s Wall systematically demolished and crushed to make the road that now brings the tourists to see the bits they missed.  It helped create a vast fragmentary jigsaw puzzle that which has proved difficult to piece together.
In 2008, I recognised that my colleagues and others had discovered, under the streets of Tyneside, the remains of a temporary timber rampart predating the stone Wall.  This observation explained the strategic methodology of Wall construction, shed light on the motivation, while providing a starting point for the process in both time and space; it was a key piece of the jigsaw; a how, why and where for the start of the Wall.

30 April, 2015

Building the Past - in Ohio

I have been blogging about the archaeology of structures for nearly 7 years, during which Google tells me I have a little over half a million page views; some of this self-selecting audience get in touch and we take things further.
One such was Bill Kennedy; we share an interest in modelling  archaeological structures from their foundations, only he builds full scale Prehistoric Native American structures at Sun Watch nr. Dayton, while I like mine to fit on my drawing board or hard disc.
So, at Bill’s instigation, we have written a chapter together in Building the Past: Prehistoric Wooden Post Architecture in the Ohio Valley–Great Lakes, recently published by University of Florida.
"This volume presents a much-needed synthesis of prehistoric wooden architecture in the greater Ohio region. The authors pursue new avenues of research in explaining architectural variation from rarely encountered Archaic domestic structures to large public buildings of Fort Ancient societies."--Cameron Lacquement, editor of Architectural Variability in the Southeast

"A significant contribution to the cultural history of the Ohio Valley and the archaeological literature on perishable architecture. The primary data and detailed descriptions of wooden post constructions make it a valuable resource."--Sissel Schroeder, University of Wisconsin-Madison

13 March, 2015

Imaginary woods

Often, when we think about the past, we do so in our imaginations, using the pictures and impressions we have picked from our shared visual culture, we mix the real things we find into a fantasy world.  Envisioning the environment in terms of its familiar topography and plants does not present much of a problem, domestic animals are bits hazier, but most of the things that made up the fabric of life just don’t survive here in our damp climate.  However, even trees in the picture may not be clear, the focus of archaeology is on tools, seldom extending to a consideration of the materials and products that gave them utility and value.  How to discuss, visualise and define things that no longer exists except in the imagination is one central issues of presenting archaeology.


10 February, 2015

Where is the woodshed?

Much of the material culture of past was fabricated from timber, and, just as significantly, fuelled by wood, a material that is usually invisible to archaeology.  Thus, provision for fuel storage, like sanitation and water supply, is one of the basics that have to be considered in the analysis of built environments.
Traditionally, firewood is measured by stacked volume; a “cord” being a stack of 8x4x4 feet, or 128 cubic feet, including the spaces between logs.[1]  The calorific value of a cord will depend mostly on the actual mass of solid wood and its density, so it is difficult to be precise or make comparisons, but we could nominally say a cord was equivalent to 3,341 kwh [2].
A medium sized house in the UK uses on average 13,500kWh of gas for heat and cooking [& 3,200kWh of electricity] [3], so to replace this with wood require about 4 cords [16’ x 8’ x 4’]; so a year’s supply would fill the garage, or perhaps the spare bedroom.

20 January, 2015

The Northern Frontier; lilies, Latin, and illiteracy

Some readers, new to archaeology, particularly students like those on MOOC courses, discover that the evidence based arguments about Roman Military archaeology found on this blog , are not well received by their tutors.  It is important to understand that many academics can only understand archaeology when it is written down, having no experience of real archaeological interpretation. As a result, the text of an archaeological report, rather than the evidence can become an article of faith, and ideas become embedded at a fundamental level, immovable objects, that actual serve to inhibit understand in the subject.
Ideas developed around the evidence for a primary timber phase of Hadrian's Wall, based on the reevaluating archaeological evidence from an engineering point of view, have produced the only cohesive, coherent, and consistent account of the early phases of the Wall. [here]  However, while this blog may give the readers the arguments to deconstruct existing ideas, that is not the name of the game.
Disappointingly, for students, it is a game, a bit like Chess, only more expensive, in that the board and its pieces are fixed, you may not bring in pieces from other games or remove any existing pieces; the object is to remove the pieces from the box and arrange them in the correct order, going beyond this and start making moves is to lose.
It is not just using the evidence, but arguments about the engineering of timber structures is also going to get a chilly reaction; what cuts ice in Roman studies is Latin.

28 December, 2014

De-turfing Hadrian’s Wall

I have argued the postholes found on the berm of Hadrian’s Wall are the remains of the a timber rampart, which together with the Turf Wall, formed the primary rampart and ditch phase of the frontier.[here] Recent work by Eric Graafstal also suggests the turf wall was the very first part of Hadrian’s Wall, and would date this phase to 119 AD, although the author believes that the Turf Wall was built in isolation against the tribes in SW Scotland [1].  Unfortunately, this leaves the Turf Wall dangling, awaiting the eventual arrival of the Stone Wall in centre of the country, and also presupposes the Northerners lacked the tactical ability to outflank the Romans by simply riding round it, rendering it useless.  But that’s not the only problem with a Wall made of turf; is such a thing likely, practical, and is there any real evidence to support it?

05 November, 2014

Did the Scots Burn Roman London?

At some point in the mid 120’s much of London Burnt  to the ground, around the same time construction of Hadrian’s Wall was apparently abandoned, could these events be connected - just how bad crisis in Roman Britain?
“... under the rule of your grandfather Hadrian what a number of soldiers were killed by the Jews, what a number by the Britons”
Marcus Cornelius Fronto, letter to Marcus Aurelius, AD162 

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.

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.