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.
Freshly cut wood from living or recently deceased trees has high moisture content and will not burn readily or efficiently, thus it has to be stored, preferably undercover while it dries or seasons prior to its use.

The size of a woodshed should reflect the amount of wood required, allowing for a buffer stock of drying timber, as well as that required for immediate use.  Thus, in an ideal world, a woodshed should be able to accommodate 2 years supply of wood.  Since it would be unwise to assume all readers are familiar with the use of firewood it is worth discussing how firewood is made.
Good Wood
Firewood is a product which is heavy and not economic to transport large distances, so most agricultural units would produce their own.  The best firewood comes from fresh timber, preferably cut in the autumn or winter when the natural moisture content is at its lowest; it is then split, stacked and dried in a wood shed. Wood cut in the autumn of one year might be used in the winter of the following year, having had 12 months or more to season; the lower the moisture content the better.  The woodshed itself should be quite an open structure to allow the circulation of air as the wood dries, perhaps with a complete wall on N/NW side protect the content from the worst of the weather and open-sided on one or more sides taking advantage of the sun.  The actual species of tree is also important as each has different characteristics in way it burns, and generally speaking, the denser hardwoods are best, but wood that sparks, throwing out pieces of burning embers is undesirable
Modern fire wood is dependent on the chainsaw which can cut through very thick stems with ease, splitting the resultant logs is comparatively easy.  However, cutting across the grain of large logs manually is hard work, particularly with axe, where there is a lot of wastage.
If I had only an axe, as was probably the case for much of prehistory, I would be looking to fairly small diameter wood that is easy to cut into lengths. Thus, coppiced stems of something like hazel [left], or oak, a typical English woodland mix, would be ideal.  While there is no reason why woodland may not be managed to produce firewood, the long-term aim is usually to produce timber for other purposes, but these systems produce ‘thinnings’ -  weaker  trees or limbs weeded out to make space for the better specimens. Thus, firewood is often a byproduct derived from thinnings and other unwanted wood such as side branches, as well as from damaged or fallen trees. o Even quite small diameter wood is useful as kindling for lighting or rejuvenating fires.
Fantasy Fuel poverty
Land and the trees growing it traditionally belong to individuals or groups, so it is wrong to imagine firewood is a product that is freely available, but since fuel like food it is one the essentials of life some provision has to be made for the common people.
 Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho' the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath'ring winter fuel. 
......... [4]
This charming depiction of medieval fuel poverty, [written in 1859], is telling us is that the poor man has not laid in stores for the winter, and is hunting around for scraps to burn.  He has no wood and likely no woodshed either.
Lucky for him that there was a king on hand to help;
Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Pine logs, [above], burn fast and hot, ideal for heating the hovel of King Wenceslas’s  fuel impoverished neighbour, but as they tend to ping burning fragments into the room - it is not as generous a gift as it may seem.   The king might have chosen apple, pear, or even cherry for its pleasing scent, although holly, which burns particularly hotly, would be an ideal gift as a Yule log.  
For a king, in England, [if not Bohemia][5], most of his stock should be beach, oak, hornbeam and ash, with some apple, hawthorn, yew and holly for special occasions.  Other common woods burn like birch burn too quickly, or poorly like chestnut, so would be avoided by those in a position to choose.  You need fires for heat for heat and cooking all year round, so a range of firewood is ideal; if you can afford to picky, just as there is probably a best wood for smoking salmon, there is an optimum wood for spit roasting or other culinary operations.
Subsistence firewood, which is scavenged from the environment, is usually dead wood, branches and small trees have usually succumbed to some form of rot, so that a lot of the calorific value represented by the cellulose  has already gone, [left rotten fallen beach ]. Dead wood picked from the ground may be damp, difficult to burn. and will produce a lot of smoke.  However, the dead branches removing removed trees “by hook or by crook” [6] is often fairly dry, and is typical of the sort of rite enjoyed by local people over common and other land. [7] The rite to cut specific amounts of wood, known as affuage / estovers , [8], and the duty to provide it for others, were part of the feudal and later legal systems that governed the functioning of the countryside.  
Despite its apparent abundance, in some areas firewood be a limited resource which can be over exploited, and once the tree cover has been removed, as on some islands, fuel shortages may make life difficult, especially for the poor. Fire is essential to life, so other sources of fuel such as peat have to be used in some areas, however, if coal is readily available, it might be used in preference to wood.
Home and hearth

Fire was used to heat buildings and cook food, it is a part of the pattern of life; clay has successfully formed the basis of hearths and ovens, so the combination of wooden floored buildings and fire is not something that should concern us unduly.
Given each household could burn tons of wood a year, surprising little charcoal is found; we do find ash pits, close to large buildings such as Woodhenge [9]; how far you live from your own rubbish might be regarded as a social indicator. 
To understand firewood use would be a fundamental insight into households, and would tell you a great deal about the socio-economics of a period.  
While wooden artifacts formed the basis of ancient material culture, they are seldom preserved except in exceptional circumstances, however, it also must be borne in mind, that once objects have outlived their usefulness, they can still serve as fuel. 
Small four / six post posthole structures are known, but are routinely conceived of as granaries,  although a woodshed would probably have been part of any domestic built environment of a reasonable status,  it is not something that archaeologists have routinely recognised or sought in the palimpsest of postholes found on prehistoric sites. 

Sources and further reading
1 cord equivalent to 3,341 kwh Electricity; also 108 gal No. 2 heating oil; 165 gal Propane; 150 therms Natural gas               
[4]  "Good King Wenceslas" in Oxford Book of Carols, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928)
[7] http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2008/oct/28/9
page 244, n.b.four at Woodhenge and four south of Woodhenge at Woodlands

Special thanks to Andy Barlow

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.

07 June, 2013

Professor Wallace-Hadrill interviewed about Herculaneum at Ideas Roadshow

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

30 April, 2013

Hadrian’s bridging of the North Tyne

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

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

28 March, 2013

Hadrian's Ghost Wall

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

15 March, 2013

Red Nose Archaeology

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

27 February, 2013

Understanding the Neolithic Longhouse

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

18 February, 2013

The North South Divide

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

13 February, 2013

Doubt, and the archaeology of the imagined past.

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

21 December, 2012

Inside the mind of a New Archaeologist

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