13 July, 2016

Reading the Wall

Conference; Reading the WallNewcastle University; 15/6/16 – 17/6/16.
The Turf Wall and the Vallum: Linguistic Dislocation on Hadrian’s Wall; Geoff Carter.
Abstract;  Above and beyond the physical reality of its archaeological deposits, Hadrian’s Wall exists as a literary entity with its own distinct vocabulary including Latin loan words.   Research has often been confined to this linguistic construct, creating an understanding that has in part been conditioned by the inherent meaning of its own terminology, in certain cases this circularity has resulted in a growing discontinuity between what is discussed and what is actually present.  The paper considers this process with specific reference to the Turf Wall and the Vallum, contrasting the physical evidence in terms of their soil science to the textural narrative, reaching different conclusions as to the nature of these important early structures.
Or, in short, the paper explains that the Turf Wall could not have been made from turf, along with the more familiar idea that The Vallum was not a vallum, which has some interesting implications for our understanding of Hadrian's Wall.

Being there.
Apart from those unsuspecting tourists, who thinking me just another dog walker, mistakenly ask the way to Hadrian’s Wall, I don’t get to talk about archaeology, but a recent conference at Newcastle University afforded a rare opportunity.  The conference considered the Wall in art and literature, it was not about archaeology specifically, but my point was that the representation of the Wall in the academic literature was, in part, demonstrably a self-sustaining myth.
Apparently, Hadrian’s Wall had helped inspire GeorgeR.R. Martin to write the books which have given us Game of Thrones, and the University had invited writers Garth Nix and Christian Cameron, who set the tone referencing the role of the Romans played in their Childhood. There were shared moments about Look and Learn, the Trigan empire, and Airfix models. I wished I had read Puck of Pook Hill, and not just looked at the pictures. The standard of presentation was great, people who do this for a living are usually comfortable, amusing, and familiar with their material.  It is always fascinating to catch a glimpse of others academic world; as I cannot possibly comment fully on all of the other papers, I will confine my observations to my own contribution
I was speaking near the end, on day three, so after a couple of days enjoying the company of these convivial and well informed people, I have to face the prospect that some may not like what I have to say.
I had hoped that the emphasis of literature and the arts would not attract too many archaeological stakeholders who might potentially be disturbed by what I had to say; while I wanted to introduce a different tone, I did not want to offend anyone.


This image represent the visual culture of the past, but it also serves as a visual metaphor for the literary construct about the Roman Wall, with its many layers which have only superficial coherence.


26 April, 2016

Reverse engineering the past

It is spring, the swallows have returned to the farm, so it is time for a mission statement, or an explanation what after 8 years on the internet Theoretical Structural Archaeology is all about, again. 
In essence it very simple, just as knowledge of potting is necessary for understanding pottery, so understanding engineering is important for a archaeologists dealing with the archaeological remains of engineered environments.  However, this really about being able to think like potter or an engineer, it concerns archaeology as a mind-set rather than a written subject.  Not that it is actually that technical, given the sorts of the data sets we recover, and of course it is only one of many core skills required for field archaeology.  The key point to grasp, at least in principle, is that engineered structures can be described mathematically, and therefore can be modelled.  

24 February, 2016

Hadrian's Wall; understanding The Vallum

The Vallum is one of the largest earthworks in the world, part of Hadrian's Wall World Heritage site, and yet is seldom discussed, perhaps because while its interpretation may work on paper, it makes less sense on the ground.
It is an excellent example of how in archaeology, what we name something conditions the way we perceive it, and how our literary constructs  can develop independently of the underlying physical evidence. 
The Vallum is one of the oldest concepts in the literature of Hadrian’s Wall, originating with the Venerable Bede in the eighth century, and while this structure is not a vallum in any way shape or form, all subsequent literature would appear to have developed from this idea.
In more recent times, it was apparent that the earthwork was not defensive, but it was nonetheless usually regarded as a boundary or barrier between the Wall and something else, with even the language used to describe the earthwork being shaped to accommodate this underlying assumption.
However, to understand the Vallum you have to look at it with the perspective of a structural archaeologist, luckily, I see it every day, so I know with a reasonable degree of certainty that is a construction trench for an unfinished road, an argument I discussed in detail 5 years ago [here]; subsequently and more generally [here].

31 January, 2016

A blogging Carnival; Grand Challenges for Archaeology; reverse engineering Stonehenge

#blogarch
In response to the latest blog Carnival organised by Doug Rocks-Macqueen, the champion of archaeological blogging, over at Doug’sArchaeology, I am posting about the challenges of modelling a prehistoric roof structure in 3D.

The story so far…
My work is based on the idea that archaeological buildings are mathematical structures which can be detected and understood using the same principles that underpin the engineering of the built environment.
As regular readers will know, I have had the misfortune to have discovered how, in theory, the large Neolithic / EBA structures represented by postholes known as Class Ei buildings [1] worked, at least in plan and section.   The next stage is to model the structure in 3D to understand its assembly; the initial challenge is finding an appropriate starting point, since the value of everything else, and many man hours is dependent on this decision.  What is also challenging, at least in an abstract sense, is that the Ei building I am currently modelling at moment is Stonehenge, the well-known ritual monument and mystery at heart of British faith-based archaeology.

20 January, 2016

2016 A Monumental New Year

Ditched Enclosures in Neolithic Europe
I have to thank Víctor Jiménez Jáimez for raising me from the deep sepulchral gloom of my seasonal torpidity, to bring you news of his new website ; Ditched Enclosures in Neolithic Europe.
He has produced an excellent site that is not only technically accomplished, but also succeeds in conveying the physical scale and geographical spread of Neolithic enclosures. Using some of the latest information and modern methods of presentation it is an excellent introduction to the topic as a European phenomenon.  The site is completely non-profit, and is aimed at the general public, but would be a good introduction for archaeology students, as the Neolithic is a period that is best understood in a European context.

29 September, 2015

Faith, Archaeology and the Gods

Recent events in the Middle East, or rather several millennia of tragedy in the area, has highlighted the issues of Gods, and the problems they cause, so should archaeologists have any dealings with the supernatural? 
Meta-parables
Faith changes people’s lives, although it is often other folk’s beliefs, rather than our own that have the most significant impact; my life changed forever at Newcastle University where my work based on mathematics proved no match for a revelatory “Iron Age Building Cosmology”; as we shall see, when creating myth a power-base is more important than an evidence base. While rationality, at least as expressed in science and maths is universal, Gods, despite their claims are usually fairly locally based, archaeology is aware of this because we know where they lived. While Gods clearly can inhabit a variety of elements and dimensions, it probably saves confusion when interacting with human society if they have a principle residence from where they can transact their business.

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  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.

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.

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.