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.


TSA uses “theoretical models” to express the ideas about buildings and structures deduced from the archaeology of their foundations; these are clearly still diagrams and not pictures. Those that tend toward pictorial representation tend to contain deliberate anachronisms; I wish to restrict the amount of information being exchanged, , express doubt, and subvert a believable reality to encourage understanding rather than belief.  TSA is an ongoing process of reverse engineering; there are other ways of approaching the roof SE end of Neolithic longhouses, which I would not want to prejudice without better data. This is part of doing and presenting the maths; with a model progress can be measured, rated, its fit examined and improved.  The same is true for the underlying components, the trees and timber, both have been well studied and can be modelled mathematically, [1]. The scale of some ancient trees, in terms of how tall they might get, is an interesting problem in the detailed modelling structures, which I may return to in a later post.
I have the same data as everybody else, but have found new ways of processing and thinking about it; invariably, progress comes from breaking down existing ideas and images, particularly the latter, since often, they are not helpful and certainly are not real.  New understandings of existing material are about breaking down one’s own ideas and preconceptions; getting people to change their own is a different matter.
Superficial similarities; barking up the wrong trees
There is an inherent conflict between the need to truthfully recreate from what was actually found, and the requirement, expectation, aspiration, or market for presenting a ‘believable reality’ to archaeology’s wider audience; more especially given the technology at our disposal.  While I am deeply suspicious of pictures of the past and their effect, I also think it important to find new ways of thinking about, and, yes, imagining the past.   These pictures of the past are what people appear to want, and might be seen as an end-product; an answer to the question - what was it like?
The hard truth is that archaeology very rarely has much to do with the routine fabric of life, surprisingly little of our culture ever involved digging holes in the ground.
Another recurrent theme is the use of other contemporary or recently documented historical cultures to fill the void in the archaeology of material culture, most notably in architecture. Nobody has seen an Iron Age building, yet we all have a picture of one in our mind; these images of the past, just like a religious painting, can tell us more about contemporary culture than it does about the imaginary object being depicted.  
There is also a point where the perceived need to remove cultural bias from our language, is at variance with the need to fully define a local tradition or technology.  At some level, which it is difficult to define, the use of terms like longhouse, roundhouse, as well as words like henge or circle, implies some relationship where none can exist, except in the most superficial descriptive sense.
Ethnographic parallels; so let’s nail this one from the start; when thinking about prehistoric material in NW Europe, it is not only that the big things like environment, particularly climate,  and culture that is entirely different from areas like Africa, it is also down to the little things like the lack of termites.  This and other trifling issues of geography is just one of reasons there is not generally a tradition of oak framed buildings in Africa.  
In NW Europe timber buildings and products represent a good long-term investment of resources, and formed the basis of a system of mixed farming in a variable temperate climate.  You could argue that the scale and nature of our buildings have reflected the use of oaks up to 50' or even 60', and it is to local trees that we should look for a sense of proportion for our ancient buildings.
While it is self-evident that vernacular architecture is a regional craft, representing one of the most obvious visual manifestations of a local culture, archaeologists find this hard to grasp in their imaginings about the past.  However, there is more to material culture than farm houses, and in the modern world it is easy to forget that wood was once the raw material for the fabrication for significant amounts of material culture.
As new materials have replaced wood, the woodland systems that produced the raw materials along with their craftsmen have also started to vanish from our countryside.  I would like to explore this very local relationship between trees and materials culture by looking at two trees with very different but complimentary contributions to make to our largely lost and unrecorded heritage.
Super woods
The mighty oak and its diminutive sidekick hazel are two of the most important building blocks of our traditional material culture,  only faint traces of which ever come to the attention of archaeologists. While other woods have specialised utility and products, [2],  almost an entire material culture can be fabricated from these two trees using simple tools. In a study of the ancient economy timber resources are easily overlooked; it is only when they run short, and this starts to impact on the archaeological culture, that this becomes apparent; domestic building in stone was only found in those areas without sufficient resources to use wood, such as Neolithic Orkneys.
As a general rule, trees are farmed, grown in woodland to provide the types of product required locally where and when they are needed [3]. There is plenty of evidence from waterlogged sites that this was the case, and the uniformity of postholes in prehistoric structures also bears this out. This is an important aspect of the Neolithic culture, for while the natural forests may be full of trees, finding ones of a suitable species and size, together with the problems of transporting them, makes growing your own the only practical solution.  This minimises the problem of extraction, although, once you cut the branches off, quite large timbers can be dragged or sledded by oxen or horses, and presumably people.  While a virtuous and ideal management cycle would be desirable, significant areas of the environment were deforested during the past; it is doubtful that the Roman Army had concern for woodland management, on the contrary destroying timber resources is a legitimate form of economic warfare.
In a fairly standard woodland system two types of tree such as oak and hazel are grown together, the taller oak trees are the main crop with the smaller shrubbier hazel grown the spaces between and below,[3].  The natural light competition drives the trees upwards, keeping them close and the presence of the smaller, but vigorous hazel also discourages side branches, filling any spaces between the oak standards.  As the trees mature over decades they are thinned with the smaller and substandard trees removed.  Both Oak and hazel can be coppiced to produce multiple stems on the same root system, and this is normal practice with the latter [above left, and right] . In complete contrast to modern monoculture systems, a well-managed traditional woodland, would contain a mix of species and ages with the aim of continuous production of a variety of products.  If your requirement is 7 years old hazel stems, you might have 7 blocks or groups of trees, each a year older in the cycle; it might be convenient to attend to the larger oak trees in an area on a similar rotation. What is neat about woodland management is that forward planning over decades can provide a just in the nick of time system; timber buildings wear out and need replacing on a regular basis, even if that might be measured in centuries, whereas some domestic wooden items might be replaced annually.    

Archaeology, as a study of human culture, is restricted to those artefacts that survive in the soil, which can result in a distinctly myopic view, and, as noted, beyond simple tillage, very little daily activity involves digging holes in the ground.  The differentiation of the past into stone, iron and bronze ages tends to obscure the continuity in the use of wood as the raw material for the fabrication of much of material culture.   Perhaps the significance of these changes in terms of woodworking tools, might only be judged in terms of their effects on the nature of their now invisible timber products. Thus, handsome though some stone tools are, they are probably not as interesting or significant as the products they created; Chippendale’s tools would not be as impressive as his chairs.[above].
In this post I have include links to videos which demonstrates the making of simple timber products; this is best way of illustrating how the properties of these woods suits them for the types products that they traditionally produced, and how a craftsman works with them; [as usual, there is a whole world of traditional woodworking videos to explore on line].
Superstructures
The long-term end product, the main crop of this woodland system was tall, preferably straight oak trees, the best of which were for structural use.  Everywhere we now use steel and concrete beams, or for that matter soft wood components, oak would be used, given the choice. Oak is relatively easy to work when freshly cut, but dries out over the years to become a very hard wood.  Most of what survives from the medieval period in terms of buildings and their contents is oak, reflecting its preferential use or survival, and why it was used.
There are few better structural timbers than English oak, importantly, larger logs can be simply split down the grain using wedges, providing squared beams for construction, boards for floors, and shingles for roofs.  Larger split panels can be used for doors, fittings, and decoration such as panelling.  Splitting Oak at Beamish Museum Here.
Traditional carpentry uses simple joints made by shaping the end of one of a piece into a tenon, then inserted into a corresponding mortise hole cut with a chisel; these are the important bits, how the rest of the component is finished is an issue of resources. Wooden pegs or tree-nails made of oak or similar are inserted into drilled holes help secure joints and hold components together, negating the need for metal fixings.
Making shingles here.
One simple form of roof known as a cruck, it involves splitting a bent tree [right] in half and using the two halfs to create a structure like an arch around which the roof is based; larger trunks can be split into several symmetrical pieces.  This is a type of roof that might be represented archaeologically by a pair of postholes, which is a sobering thought, and perhaps explains why the origin of this type of structure remains obscure.
Note the difference between carpentry tools used for putting together buildings, [below] which differ in scale, range, and refinement from those of a joiner, who might make the fixtures and fittings.
In contrast, hazel is a light and very flexible wood, which will produce multiple long stems when coppiced , their size depending on the period of time between cropping.  These can be used whole or spilt, often multiple times to produce increasingly flexible slivers of wood.     
It provides the wattle panels around which the daub was formed, for both external walls and internal partitions, [woven split oak is also known].  A traditional thatched roof was held together with hazel spars, runners, and pegs. If you are not sure about spars - making spars here.
Super timber
Inside the home, oak is tough durable and looks good, so it is used for furniture making, tables, seating, and storage like chests. It can be cleaved, carved, and turned into utensils, bowls, platters and other types of table wares. It can be shaped into staves for barrels, and be split into thin strips and woven to make containers like spale baskets of interwoven oak lathes or spelks; such containers were also known as slops, swills, and whiskets [4].  
For hazel, its principle utility is its flexibility, it can be woven into wickerwork containers and bent using heat or steam into hoops to strengthen other containers [5].   Almost everything that had to be stored or transported might use barrels or baskets.  
Hazel nuts, cobnut or filbert nuts, [depending on species], are an ancient staple of our diet, but preferably not the acorns produced by mature oak trees which were forage for pigs; their high tannin concentrations make them very bitter. However, this property of the wood might enhance certain products stored in oak, or contribute to food smoked with it.  The durability of the wood for use outside also comes from its high tannic acid content, and its bark, always available as a by-product, was used in tanning leather[6].  Oak posts with rails might be used for a fences and gates; it can be used to line wells, tanks, pits, and for pit props; hazel wickerwork can also be used to stabilise holes like cesspits made in soft ground.
Hazel rods had numerous uses; such as angling [7], making lobster pots, fish and eel traps, [8]they are ideal in horticulture for building frameworks and for plant support. Hurdles, wattle panels made from hazel were a cheap to produce, light, but effective way of creating temporary fences, pens and enclosures particularly for flocks of sheep. Another utility of hazel is that it can be split down into small but very flexible strips for binding [string].
Making Hurdles here.
Both species are common in hedgerows, in addition, large trees like oaks are excellent long term boundary markers and landmarks. Growing and planting such trees is simple, as they can be grown in baskets until suitably mature.  That our antecedents might have dug holes to plant trees is not always uppermost in archaeologists’ minds.
Since the Neolithic both oak and hazel have been used to build pathways, tracks, and later roads which have been preserved in waterlogged ground.   Oak is a good timber for bridges, wharfs and docks; it is ideal for military engineering like ramparts, gates and towers, while hazel wickerwork can produce battlements or mantlets. In transportation, wagons, carts and chariots might use oak in particular components like wheels for strength,[9] and hazel where lightness or flexibility is required. Similarly, oak was the favoured material for framed boats, either planked or skin covered like the currach, while hazel could be used in the construction of smaller craft like coracles,[10].
The ancient world was powered by wood, it provided the fuel for heating, cooking, and industrial processes, both hazel and oak are excellent for firewood; both make good charcoal an essential ingredient in the smelting and working of metals.  In mines fire was used to heat rock which was then cooled rapidly with water to crack it. Wooden wedges can be driven into cracks in rocks, which when soaked in water expand causing a crack to open.
As a footnote to the litany of utility, some of the extraordinary Roman correspondence found locally at Vindolanda was written on slivers of oak, providing an unexpected and colourful insight into an aspect of culture which until 1973 had only existed in theory.
While the contrasting properties of these two trees have served to illustrate the range of uses for wood, other common trees such as ash, willow, yew, box, and beech produced timbers with specific uses, whose utility would be equally worthy of detailed discussion.
The supernatural power of wood
As two of the most prominent and useful trees in the environment, both are woven into religion, superstition, folk law and medicine, with hazel being particularly associated with magic and oak with strength.  It is clear that in past both species were found in sacred groves, very specific places, perhaps remnants of the wild wood with ancient trees, and distinct from the more utilitarian woodlands where people worked. [11]
These mystical associations of trees and wooden objects are too extensive for detailed discussion, although I would like to cite one local example; heating hazel nuts to crack them was used as a form of divination on Halloween – also once known as 'Nut-crack night' in parts of Scotland and Northern England. [12]
Both hazel and oak make good sticks and staffs, but the latter is ideal for those types of stick used for hitting things, bog oak being ideal for a club.  If you like symbolism, consider the shepherds crooks, crosiers, batons, staffs, rods, wands and sceptres as expressions of power or authority; until the last century you could be judicially caned or birched.  Everywhere you look people in power and their servants had sticks and staffs of some kind
Hazel rods are used for dowsing, wands can symbolise wisdom, power, misdirection, and magic[13], which is difficult to reference and dangerously like New Archaeology, [14]; luckily, in classical Greco-Roman mythology, the god Hermes/Mercury has a special wand called a caduceus, so we are on safer ground.
One further use of hazel rods that might be easily overlooked was as tally sticks; until 1724, and even as late as 1826, information about the fiscal relationship between the state and the individual could be recorded by notches on a hazel rod that was split into 2 halves, each party keeping one half as an official receipt. It was  a simple, cheap, fool proof system for a preliterate age, and virtually invisible to archaeology.
It was the burning of these now redundant tally sticks in 1834 that caused the fire that destroyed the ancient Palace of Westminster.  [ above; Turner - The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons October 16 1834]. It was rebuilt in the gothic splendour we know today, although we tend to picture the stone exterior rather than the timber interior [right; pre- war]; which I suspect is quite common when envisioning famous buildings.  In succeeding where Guy Fawkes failed, the tally sticks demonstrated why so little of the wooden past remains, and why it has been replaced in other materials.
This fine oak chair was carved in 1297 by a craftsman known as Master Walter, it was an expensive piece which cost the king 100 shillings; it is known as the King Edwards Chair.  Although it has lost much of its original gilt and paint, got tarted up a bit in later years, it remains the Throne of England on which [almost] every monarch has had to sit at the coronation.  This remarkable piece of quasi-magical furniture, was also built to contain the Stone of Destiny previously used to sanctify Scottish kingship.  After over seven hundred years old, is still at the centre of the confirmation of power, which explains why it was not thrown away; luckily, it was made of oak. 
Would they have known?
Most of aspects of oak and hazel culture discussed have archaeological examples, but they are exceptionally rare, while soil, or dirt as my colleges might call it, is abundant.   What archaeologists find; postholes and stake holes, some pits, trenches, even graves to some extent, are holes in the ground, that have to do with the practical, utilitarian, or engineering use of timber.
The further we go back into the past the less reliable the historical record becomes, the details of material and social things have been lost, so we might get the impression of an technological ground zero from which the familiar aspects of life all  emerge  as “Roman” or “medieval”.  Clearly, it only from these periods that images of the past have any empirical basis, so it is largely imagination for the prehistorians.  
Try telling fellow archaeologists that Pre-Roman buildings had stairs, floors, even doors, [or worst of all windows], and you will get a very odd reaction; challenging peoples imaginary worlds is just that, a challenge. 
To return to another familiar line, a more fundamental hurdle in the path of understanding can be what we choose to call something, since this must exert a powerful primary call on the visual imagination.  In a recent post I explained why the “Turf Wall” section of Hadrian’s Wall was not made of turf but had been made from timber; in a nutshell it goes like this;
Turf is a mixture of organic and mineral materials; the characteristic “Turf Wall” deposit does not contain the range of mineral particle sizes typical of the local soil, only mostly very fine material, but with charcoal, the traces of fire moss, [Ceratodon purpureus], that grows on dead wood, and pollen samples that are dominated by trees; therefore it could not derive from turf; however, the evidence is consistent with it being the remains of a timber fortification; [QED, etc. here].
It is a very simple and basic observation, which despite having science and historical precedence behind it, is unlikely to convince anyone that something called the “Turf” Wall was made of wood; it is not just the pictures on people’s minds, but also the words we use to describe and name things that do the damage.
The extent to which thinking or more specifically, interpretation of the evidence and understanding is influenced by this imaginary world is difficult to measure.  Even the words like “Prehistoric” seems prejudicial, bending seamlessly into cave men and prehistoric monsters territory. Archaeology is in part a faith based study, with a largely imaginary shared visual culture depicting our past, which I have argued, may serve as block to the understanding of the evidence we find, particularly those ideas and images borrowed from other cultures far away.  
The distant past to some extent is a blank canvas onto which ideas can be projected, often by those seeking  legitimacy and authority in the present. Similarly, aspects of modern archaeology involve the study of what archaeologists don’t find, largely driven by the projection of ideas drawn from contemporary anthropology into the minds of our antecedents, but along with our learning, goes our own ignorance of traditional native culture material culture.  As a result, even relatively straightforward timber structures and products are seen as beyond the abilities of prehistoric peoples.
The truth in archaeology is often hidden in plain sight – the one place archaeologists may forget to look.


"The truth may be out there, but the lies are inside your head." 

Terry Pratchett 1948 - 2015

Picture Credits
Chippendale chair
Woodworking tools;
Author: Peter C. Welsh Release Date: November 12, 2008 [EBook #27238]
Title: Woodworking Tools 1600-1900  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/27238/27238-h/27238-h.htm
Figure 3.—1703: The tools of the joiner illustrated by Moxon
Figure 4.—1703: Only the principal tools used in carpentry are listed by Moxon
Citing Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Exercises ..., 3rd ed., London, 1703. Library of Congress.
Turner - The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons
Old [pre-war] Commons interior;


Sources and further reading
[2] Kay N.W. [ed]. 1946. The Practical carpenter and Joiner Illustrated. Odhams Press
Bramwell, M., [ed]. 1982. The international book of wood. London.
[3]  Rackham, O, 1986. The ancient woodland of England: the woods of south-east Essex.
Hanson, C.,O. 1934. Forestry for Woodmen. Oxord press
[4] Jenkins J G, 1978, Traditional country craftsmen, Routledge & Kegan Paul.  p 53
[5].Op. cit. pp30-32
[8] Arnold J, 1968. The Shell book of country crafts. Baker, London. 329-330
[9] Jenkins J G, 1978, Traditional country craftsmen, Routledge & Kegan Paul.  p 110.
[10] Arnold J, 1968. The Shell book of country crafts. Baker, London. 222
[11]. See; Porteous, A.,  1928, The Lore of the Forest, London, p 44
[Cosimo Classics Mythology and Folklore- 1996 – Random house
[12] Op. cit.262
[13] Op. cit.266
[14] Folk belief about Hazel and other trees discussed here;

10 February, 2015

Where is the woodshed?

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

20 January, 2015

The Northern Frontier; lilies, Latin, and illiteracy

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

28 December, 2014

De-turfing Hadrian’s Wall

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

05 November, 2014

Did the Scots Burn Roman London?

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

26 October, 2014

Posthole Archaeology; Function, Form and Fighting

In the previous post I posed the question what buildings does a moderately complex hierarchical agricultural society require, looking at aspects of agricultural buildings; this time I am looking at moderately complex hierarchical society, or at least that end of hierarchy that tends to represented in archaeology.
It is fashionable, and perhaps progressive, to talk of higher status individuals or elites, to avoid cultural bias inherent such terms as aristocracy.   However, I use the term in its original cultural context precisely to reference that bias, or understanding, and also is to imply a degree of continuity between Prehistory and History.
I am going to look particularly at the Late Iron Age fort at Orsett, Essex, [1] now lost to the latest incarnation of the junction it guarded 2000 years ago. [below].  It typifies all the problems of interpretation associated with archaeology that has been ploughed. It was clearly a fortification at some stage, and only the aristocracy, have the resources, interest and right to build such things. Systematic and sustained fighting, takes considerable resources, training and expensive kit. It was after all, what maintained them at the top of the divinely sanctioned heap, and some might argue it was their raison d’etre.

26 September, 2014

Posthole archaeology; function, form and farming


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

13 September, 2014

Dumbing down the past.

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

04 September, 2014

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

On  19 of September Nigel Hetherington of Past Preservers, will be returning to his ancestral homelands and taking part in the English Heritage's Hadrian's Wall Hike to raise funds for much needed conservation along the famous route. Please Donate today to support Nigel and English Heritage, and share with your friends and colleagues. All of your donations and efforts are greatly appreciated, please Tweet your support to @Pastpreservers and @EnglishHeritage using the #HadriansHike hashtag and please spread the word! 

31 August, 2014

Roundhouse Psychosis

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

17 August, 2014

Debunking the Iron Age Round House

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

04 August, 2014

On the Death of my Father

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

28 March, 2014

#BlogArch – Where is it all leading?

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

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

05 February, 2014

Ramparts and Ditches - the Roman Killing Zone

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

20 January, 2014

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

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

14 January, 2014

The archaeology of the Imaginary Spaces

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

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

07 January, 2014

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

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

14 December, 2013

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


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