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? 
What’s the problem with our understanding of function?
Roundhouses"."; in recent posts I have pointed out that what we have accepted as unicellular single story structure with a fire at the centre is construct not supported by the excavated evidence.  This is not to say that simple round huts did not exist, but circularity of design in the ground plan is a style, not a form.   The passive acceptance of this idea and the exclusivity with which it has been applied to archaeological data has been a disaster to our understanding of Prehistory. 
The problems with roundhouses have arisen from reducing form to shape, and then assuming uniformity of domestic function.
While I think we can take it for granted that most people lived in house, there was a wide variety of animals, materials, processes and social activities that required a building.  In this post we are going to look briefly at the building needs of farmers, in particular housing their animals and crops.
13 Key points to contextualise the origins of Prehistoric farm buildings in NW Europe.
  1. While this is a complex issue, agriculture seems to expanded to NW Europe as a frontier, gradually clearing suitable land in the major river valley systems; what business might call “organic growth”.[1]
  2. For the LBK agriculturalists that spread north and west the Neolithic revolution was something that had happened a long time ago and far away.
  3. In this context, the story begins with the farm buildings of these LBK agriculturalists who required a much more complex built environment than the Mesolithic populations who had moved in after the Ice Age. [above][2]
  4. This was a fully-formed functional system of architecture; it was not transitional from living in caves or tents, and is not way related to what happened previously in these areas.
  5. Agricultural practices and buildings had a long time to adapt to the changing conditions for growing, processing and storing products, and the increasing need to house and feed animals during the winter. 
  6. Farming in a cold, wet, and windy climate, which reduces the growing season, light levels and available dry days, is more dependent on buildings. 
  7. High wind, wet, and snow are particularly deleterious to buildings. 
  8. In temperate Europe there is an abundance of hardwood, particularly oak, and also a lack of serious wood eating pests like termites, allowing the development of robust long lasting timber framed buildings.
  9. The remains of Neolithic buildings from European lake side sites [3] were buildings with wooden floors and doors, and [like crannogs], demonstrate that hearths can be used in wooden floored buildings. 
  10. While it is perhaps possible to grasp the concept and imitate aspects of agriculture, the same is not true of a complex technology like building that resides in the minds of individuals.
  11.  The construction of buildings, spatial ordering and other agricultural engineering were probably the most specialised skill set of the Neolithic; farmland needs only to be laid out once, and farm houses should last a lifetime, these were not every day or seasonal skills.  
  12. While ground stone woodworking tools are diagnostic, in a world largely fabricated from wood, it was what they produced that was of significance to Neolithic craftsmen, although this is largely invisible to the archaeologist. 
  13. An important and easily overlooked aspect of the Neolithic skill set is woodland management which allows continuous production of woodland products, including long cycle [c.40-50 years] structural building timber.  
Farmers
The initial uniformity and scale of LBK farmhouse architecture might  suggest a degree of self-sufficiency within a cooperative environment; [Elsloo, Netherland. Left][2].
As always we have only a fragment of the picture, but as with seafaring cultures, the need for mutual aid and cooperation may have engendered a more egalitarian society among these agricultural pioneers.  However, this is relative; there is no reason to suppose that the LBK did not use slaves, and my guess is that they would have enslaved, if not displaced or killed, the existing Mesolithic populations.  
I am not sure that the range LBK buildings are well enough understood to know how architecturally self-sufficient these large farm houses were, and if smaller subsidiary buildings were important.  Scale maybe related to function, and not necessarily status.   
As already noted, by the time we get to the Bronze Age, there is a much more complex social differentiation and distribution of ownership to be reflected in architecture.  While farming was the basis of the economy, and land ownership probably the basis of wealth,  the individuals and institutions at the top of the food chain were not necessarily involved in the work of agriculture in any meaningful way.  Further, we might also like to consider the difference between a Farmer and a Farm Labourer; on a pre-mechanised farm there is a much greater demand for labour than knowledge.  Much of the daily and seasonal agricultural work is routine,  and although working with animals requires skill, it does not require a high level of strategic decision making.
However, concentration of agricultural wealth should be represented in the nature of farm buildings, with concentrations of larger and more specialised structures, perhaps in association with non-agricultural built environments.   
By the Bronze Age, the design of agricultural built environments has to accommodate two important new factors, wheeled transport and the widespread use of horses.
Farms
Our traditional vision of a farm as a collection of buildings around a farmyard, is good starting point, but we also have to appreciate, that as a man made environment, a farm is system of enclosed spaces laid out in relation to topography aspect and soil, with due consideration of water supply and drainage. Hedges, fences, ditches and ponds, can be augmented using temporary structures like hurdles.   The system is linked by a network infrastructure of tracks, gates and pens, with the farmyard and its buildings at the centre, their scale reflecting the various capacities of the associated land.   
Animals out-number people on farms, and if they have to housed, together with their feed, can take up a lot more room in terms of ground floor area. It should be borne in mind, that apart from the convenience and their own their own safety, we also need to enclose animals to stop them being stolen, a principle that extends to all agricultural products.  While the traditional farmyard villain was the fox, in prehistory, wolves, eagles and bears were not yet extinct, although as today, rodents, birds, and insects are the farmers habitual enemy. 
Farm Buildings 
Above and beyond the requirements of the humans, represented by things like houses, privies and woodsheds, there is a basic set of covered spaces that together constitute a basic set of farm buildings for mixed farm.[4] Spaces may be multipurpose or change their use depending on the season, and as the LBK longhouse illustrates,  some can be combined with human accommodation within a single building.  However, the specific form and function of each space is sufficiently unique for them to be considered as separate buildings.  
  • Byer / Cow house
  • Cart Shed
  • Barn
  • Granary
  • Stable
  • Pig Stye
  • Henhouse
  • Farm House
These are all spaces we should ideally be able to detect archaeologically on a regular basis..
Byer / Cow House
Depending on local conditions, cattle may have to be kept indoors in severe winter weather, not only because there is no grass to eat in the fields, but also they could turn the churn pasture into mud.  Even when animals are enclosed in the open, such as in a yard, in order to control, some form of [shelter] shed may be required to help dispense, protect and conserve the feed.  Living over the cow house or byer is a good way of utilising the heat generated by the animals. 
Byers tend to have:
  • Drinking water
  • Low ceiling
  • Door only slightly wider than human.
  • Stalls or method securing the cattle in position
  • Mangers for feed/ hay
  • Straw on the floor
  • Access to stores of hay straw and feed
  • Drains from the building
Pairs of Working Oxen are routinely kept indoors where they can be fed high energy food and handled more easily, similarly milking cows will need stalls.
Cart Shed
The farm vehicles, carts [2 x wheels] or wagons [4 x wheels] need a shed, as does the plough, tools and a host of other equipment. Generally, yoked Oxen were used more than horses for farm work; [the former being more of a traditional diesel unit while the later are more like petrol engines]. Generally, a cart shed should be / have:
  • About the size of a garage
  • Wide and tall double doors
  • Tall spaces
  • Doors open outward into a yard/ space
  • Near the oxen/horses
These buildings are characterised by a wide opening an adaption evident in any part of the farm that the cart may require access to.  
Roundhouse with wide entrances: A: Pimperne Down, Hampshire. B & D: Little Woodbury, Wiltshire. C: Moel Y Gaer P10, Flintshire. E: Longbridge Deverill Cow Down, Wiltshire. F: Orsett S9, Essex. [5]
In general, the width, height and turning circle of wheeled vehicles should be reflected in the design and layout of built environments they use.  Tall double doors are more complex to construct and hang, and should be firmly fixed even when open.  
The Barn

Although the term is wisely misused, a barn is a building for processing cereals and the storage of products. Once harvested, cereals have to be threshed to detach the grain from stalks [straw], and then winnowed to separate it from the lighter chaff.  Typically, threshing was done with a flail on a special [threshing] floor and winnowing by tossing the grain in a draught using a basket, both activities are best done in a lofty space.  
So the characteristics of a barn are generally:
  • Tall space
  • Wide Door/s for wagon access
  • Through Draught
  • Threshing Floor
  • Space for storage of the unthreshed grain / straw
Threshing and bagging grain in Germany in 1695 [6]
The straw, the dried stalks of cereals, and hay, grass left to grow, cut down and dried in the sun,, can be can be satisfactorily stacked and covered without a building, but are probably better kept under cover. As with all bulk products storage close to where it is be used is preferable.
The Granary 
Traditionally’ granaries are raised off the ground or on a second floor, which also helps secure them against vermin, and keeps the grain away from the ground. 
Grain has to dried before it can be stored, or it might rot or sprout; so spaces are required for processing and storage have to be dry.  In addition, Grain is transported by wagon and is stored in sacks, in bins or loose, so the ergonomics are also served by a floor raised to the height of a cart or wagon floor.  Grain was a valuable commodity. 
  • Raised above the ground
  • Strong load bearing floor
  • Dry and well ventilated
  • Secure 
The "four-Post" granary, is one form of archaeological structure where function is apparently understood, and are another legacy of Bersu's Little Woodbury Excavation [7].  I have sugested a cantilever design based on the evidence from the LIA site at Orsett, [8].
I have always felt grain storage pits/silos, that are found in the Iron Age, are a feature of chalk as they not become waterlogged, but have only one great advantage over a granary, - they can be hidden.
Stables
As already noted horses were not best suited to heavy work and more obviously adapted to speed.  They are relatively high value animals, and represent a significant investment in time and training.  Unlike domestic cattle which are relatively docile, horses are more spirited and can panic and hurt themselves. Ponies and horses vary in hardiness, and size, which effects how they are housed, but working animals are kept in doors for convenience, where they can be fed and kept dry particularly in winter. Horses are notably associated with chariots; both were items of prestige and status, which also need suitable housing.  Stables tend to be/have:
  • Relatively lofty open space
  • Water supply
  • Drain
  • Secure 
  • Slightly wider/ taller door 
  • Individual Stalls / loose box format.
  • Access to stores of hay straw and feed
Other buildings
Birds like Hens, Ducks, and Geese are kept for their eggs and meat, they should be housed or enclosed, [at least night], to protect them and for convenience of collecting eggs.  The design of the Henhouse is conditioned by the hen’s preference for roosting off the ground, and any attached run by the need to protect them from predation.   The traditional pig style is a low building with an attached pen, troughs and water supply.
Individual animals of any kind may require separating, perhaps when sick,  and putting into a loose box, a flexible space to accommodate such eventualities.
Sheep [and goats] are the hardiest of animals, but still need enclosure and protection, particularly during lambing when they are vulnerable. Unlike other domesticated species, sheep, and particularly ewes, don’t readily become accustomed to being handled. Depending on the regime individual sheep may require attention or separating into different groups; they will have to be sheared and their fleeces stored.  There is a range of domestications evident by historical times such as ferrets, Birds of prey, even bees, but their ‘archaeology’ is somewhat obscure.
Conclusions
Animals kept indoors require appropriate systems for storage and dispensing of water, feed and bedding, which are simple and practical to replenish. Disposal of wastes in its various forms is also a matter of real concern, but usually only visible to archaeology when drains are used inside a building. In many respects, the layout of animal accommodation is primarily to serve human needs. 
What becomes of the agricultural products for human consumption, the spaces needed for processing, storage and consumption relates to a different set of buildings that cater for the diverse needs of people is a separate topic.     
I have covered a range of theoretical buildings, any one of which would be a PhD research project in its own right, since in terms of British Prehistory you would be starting from ground zero. Such buildings are rarely alluded to in reports and they would have to be sought in the detail of excavation data.  A methodology of reverse engineering structures from excavated data is only way conceivable way of developing a more nuanced understanding of both form and function in prehistoric build environments. However, for farmers, it is often the shared connective space, the yard/s, rather than the buildings that is often the focus of activity.  For archaeology, the postholes and other features are the focus, but it is the nature of the spaces they define that is the key to understanding function, and it is their relationship to open areas that often gives context to farm buildings. 

Sources and further reading

[1] P. Bogucki (1996), 'The Spread of Early Farming in Europe'. American Scientist, Vol. 84, No. 3, May-June, 1996.
[2]PJR Modderman (1970): 'Linearbandkeramik aus Elsloo und Stein 2.' Tafelband, Leiden Univ., Faculty of Archaeology.
PJR Modderman (1975): 'Elsloo, a Neolithic farming community in the Netherlands,' in Bruce-Mitford, R L S, Recent archaeological excavations in Europe, Chapter IX.
PJR Modderman (1985), D'ie Bandkeramik im Graetheidegebiet, Niederländisch-Limburg.' Berichte der Römisch- Germanischen Kommission, 66:25-121
[3] eg; Robenhausen site;
http://www.mpm.edu/research-collections/anthropology/online-collections-research/robenhausen-site
[4] R W Brunskill, 1999: Traditional farm buildings of Britain
and their conservation
[5]After D. W. Harding, I. M. Blake, and P. J. Reynolds (1993): An Iron Age settlement in Dorsett: Excavation and reconstruction. University of Edinburgh. Department of Archaeology Monograph series No. 1
G. Bersu (1940): 'Excavations at Little Woodbury, Wiltshire. Part 1, the settlement revealed by excavation.' Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 6, 30 -111
G. Guilbert1 (1981): "Double-ring roundhouses, probable and possible," in Prehistoric Britain Proc Prehist Soc 47 &. G. Guilbert (1982): 'Post-ring symmetry in Roundhouses at Moel y Gaer and some other sites in prehistoric Britain', in Structural Reconstruction - Approaches to the interpretation of the excavated remains of buildings; British Archaeological Report 110, BAR, 67-86
S. C. Hawkes (1994): "Longbridge Deverill Cow Down, Wiltshire, House 3: A Major Round House of the Early Iron Age." Oxford Journ. Archaeol. 13(1), 49-69
G. A. Carter (1998): 'Excavations at the Orsett ‘Cock’ enclosure, Essex, 1976'. East Anglian Archaeology Report No 86
[6] Original image description from the Deutsche Fotothek Landwirtschaft & Getreideanbau & Dreschen & Lagerung http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ee/Fotothek_df_tg_0007706_Landwirtschaft_%5E_Getreideanbau_%5E_Dreschen_%5E_Lagerung.jpg
 [7] G. Bersu: 1940: Excavations at Little Woodbury, Wiltshire. Part 1, the settlement revealed by excavation. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 6, 30 -111
[8] G. A. Carter (1998): 'Excavations at the Orsett ‘Cock’ enclosure, Essex, 1976'. East Anglian Archaeology Report No 86

13 September, 2014

Dumbing down the past.

Dumbing down through abstraction.
In two previous posts, [ 1 + 2 ] I have demonstrated that one of the central images of British Prehistory, the Wessex Roundhouse, is a construct which does not accurately the evidence.  It is not a discovery, or rocket science, I just read the relevant reports and looked at the plans and sections.
While I am happy to call these roundhouse constructs dumbing down, what to call the scholarship they generate presents a problem, since it represents the application of presumably perfectly acceptable theory to an imaginary data set. 
Archaeology is often at its best and most incisive when it has borrowed from other disciplines, but left to their own devices some academics have wandered off through the dewy system to delve into ideas about the relationship between people and built environments. But perhaps sometimes they just look at the pictures.
It is possible for anthropologists to study the relationship between people and their built environments; the humans can be questioned and observed, and the spaces inspected. In such a study, we might also wish consider factors of age, status, and gender, as well as more complex issues pertaining to the ownership and creation of spaces.
In anthropology, a theory, a set of ideas or a cosmology which explain the patterns of behaviour associated with particular places can be developed through the study of people and spaces. 
However, in Archaeology the people we study are dead and their spaces destroyed, or they usually are after we have finished with them....

04 September, 2014

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

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

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

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



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

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

31 August, 2014

Roundhouse Psychosis

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

17 August, 2014

Debunking the Iron Age Round House

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

04 August, 2014

On the Death of my Father

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

28 March, 2014

#BlogArch – Where is it all leading?

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

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

05 February, 2014

Ramparts and Ditches - the Roman Killing Zone

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

20 January, 2014

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

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

14 January, 2014

The archaeology of the Imaginary Spaces

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

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

07 January, 2014

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

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

14 December, 2013

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


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

02 December, 2013

Blog Carnival; Archaeological Blogging – Why?

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

08 October, 2013

Understanding more about Stonehenge as a Building

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

23 August, 2013

Starting to model Woodhenge in Google SketchUp

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

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

19 July, 2013

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

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

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

19 June, 2013

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

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

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

07 June, 2013

Professor Wallace-Hadrill interviewed about Herculaneum at Ideas Roadshow

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

30 April, 2013

Hadrian’s bridging of the North Tyne

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

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

28 March, 2013

Hadrian's Ghost Wall

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

15 March, 2013

Red Nose Archaeology


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

27 February, 2013

Understanding the Neolithic Longhouse


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

18 February, 2013

The North South Divide


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

13 February, 2013

Doubt, and the archaeology of the imagined past.

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