So, before we go any further, it's important we have a heart to heart about what’s going on here. We are meeting in rather unusual circumstances; my concern is what is going on in your mind when you read this, and you may be beginning to wonder about what’s going on in mine.
My principle concern, about you, is your ‘visual conditioning’ - for example, what you see when you close you eyes and think of the Iron Age
– since this can overrule other forms of reasoning. Thanks to the work of some excellent artists  and experimental archaeologists, you have seen, and may even have visited, Iron Age roundhouses, as well as experienced them realised in digital and other forms on the net. If you mentally answered ‘yes’ to any of that, contact a doctor -- you are older than think, or low budget air travel has reached the Iron Age.
It is important to keep in mind that ideas about the prehistoric built environment are largely made up: The roundhouse with a central hearth, in the contexts we about to discuss, is a complete fiction, a fairy tale. The fact that this myth is regularly trotted out by everyone from professors to TV archaeologists does not constitute evidence of its veracity; that is not how archaeology is meant to work.
What I am going to do next, is ask you to suspend belief in just about every image you have ever seen of the built environment in prehistoric England -- as well as much of what you have read, since increasingly ‘theoretical’ (?) archaeologists in universities have based their ideas about buildings on these images and visual conventions, rather than any real appreciation or analysis of the structural evidence, such as at Springfield Lyons [left] .
So who am I to presume to mess with your preconceptions?
So who am I?
I am the archaeologist who came in from the cold, chilled world of commercial server rooms, bringing with me nearly twenty years of research. I sought shelter in my local university, only to find that my knowledge is of no value, because I have no value -- I do not attract funding -- I am worthless. Which is pretty much how I was treated; it’s not that they did not believe or understand theoretical structural archaeology -- they could not even be bothered to listen, even after I gave them all my money, so I hit upon blogging as the only way forward for my research. This way I get a self-selecting audience, who are most welcome to join in and comment, and no money changes hands.
Thus, Theoretical Structural Archaeology occupies a strange space beyond the academic firewall, your host is a worthless individual, and nobody has been paid to check that I’m not lying to you, and so you're just going to have to use your own judgment, which, as I said earlier, is actually the whole point.
I should also mention that I have recently been diagnosed as dyslexic. I have a very poor visual memory for words, which has blighted my education, and this makes writing and reading this blog much harder than it really ought to be. I am truly sorry folks! It must be irritating for you, but it’s equally demoralising for me. It is unfortunate that such a central and important topic as structural interpenetration has not been worked on by somebody literate, and more acceptable to the academic system. It would saved me considerable heartache; I could get a life, and you would be doing something else at this moment.
If you are comfortable with your vision of the past, or have made a contribution to its creation, I can only apologise for taking on your preconceptions, current theories, and individual ‘authorities’; although the question still remains: how best to proceed?
Here is my problem: I study postholes, site plans, and the archaeological reports where they are found. I consider them to be evidence of the built environment, and thus central to our visualisation and understanding of the past. The more I have studied, the more my view has diverged from the ‘conventional view’.
I have tried being polite and deferential, and nobody listened. But postholes are my field, and some rather strange people have parked their flabby intellectual backsides on my turf, which is unfortunate, but mostly for them. I have to say that I am itching to charge in behind the shield of Internet freedom and hack into the soft sagging underbelly of back of the beer mat archaeological theorists with my rapier wit, bombarding them with a torrent of mixed metaphors until they had not got a ritual leg to stand on. But wiser councils prevailed; so I’ll do that next week.
So I am back to where we started: how to persuade that your vision is wrong?
I could give you another 40,000 words of ‘try looking at it this way’, gradually widening your perception and thinking on what constitutes a realistic built environment, slowly eroding your belief in the consensus. Or I could go for shock; Buddhists do all sorts of things to the bodies and minds of young monks to break their conditioning, ranging from the sound of one hand clapping, to a good slapping; I still favour a good humorous polemical rant. Edward de Bono, pioneer of lateral thinking, came up with the concept of ‘Po’ , something between and beyond ‘yes and no’, that allowed you transcend apparent contradictions, move arguments on, and find creative solutions to problems, so you may have to ‘po’ some of your ideas, or mine, for a while, so that they can coexist.
Ultimately, the only motivation or incentive I can offer in return for attempting to trash your visual preconceptions is that you care deeply about archaeology and getting it as correct as possible is as important to you as it is to me.
This will allow us to look in detail at the fundamental problem of finding structures in the first place, as well as interpreting them. In the real world of archaeology, things are not clear-cut, evidence is ambiguous, individuals make mistakes, things are missed; it’s very much the human way. Dealing with the evidence at this level, we have to accept its limitations, and not seek to simplify it for the sake of uniformity and correspondence with other sites. I will actually try to avoid discussing parallels; it’s for your own good. And we certainly won’t be mentioning aspects of tribal African architecture, unless someone finds a gene for roof pitch preference. The word ‘ritual’ will not be used (except as a term of abuse); if we don’t understand something we will say so, and not attempt to mystify archaeological features. To describe something as ‘ritual’ is often a formal way of expressing a lack of understanding, a declaration of ignorance; like superstition or religion, it is used to explain things that are not properly understood. From now on our only god is gravity.
Every building I have ever considered has been in some way unique, although there are occasional shared idiosyncrasies in design which may, in the long term, prove to be of interest. In reality, we don’t have a very big sample.
We will have to discuss roundhouses. Even though they are the one structure that is universally recognised, they have unfortunately been badly misunderstood and mythologized. I fully agree with the late great Peter Reynolds' experimental construct of Pimperne Down having a thatched roof and a wattle and daub wall. It’s only the overall form, structure, porch, roof pitch, and internal arrangement I think is wrong.
Conventional approaches to the evidence are based on the interpretation of the main elements of 3 recognised structural elements: wall, ring beam and porch. Additional features, often numerous, are ignored by this approach. Two of the most important roundhouses we shall look at, Little Woodbury and Pimperne Down, were rebuilt, so there are two copies of the building plan. This allows us to detect the nature of the internal structures, such as the stairs. I am not claiming to understand the layout of any individual building, but I can show the probable disposition of some major components. We will have to think a lot more about roof structure, thrust, and, particularly, ties, since these support the upper floors.
The distribution of pottery and daub at Longbridge Deverill , showing its relationship with the stairs. In addition, it shows clearly the separation of inner and outer areas on the ground floor. The main door and entry area is wide enough to allow vehicular access, and the central area could be a byre or stable, with the peripheral area used for access or storage.
While on the subject of timber forts, and as a present to readers in Ireland, who have been some of the first to open diplomatic relations, the timber fort at Navan, Emain Macha, Co. Armagh, dated to 95BC, had a roof still fairly close in concept to earlier structures. It is similar in date to Gussage All Saints, but built on a much grander and more massive scale, with a very interesting ‘staircase’ feature; whatever was going on there, it was happening upstairs. The illustration shows the basic form, but without more work on posthole depths, consider it ‘provisional’.
We shall also look at two post-built Roman vernacular buildings from Orsett, unsurprisingly laid out in Roman feet. The elite have now moved on to mortared stone buildings like ‘villas’ and townhouses, but what the majority of the population did for housing outside the towns is less well known.
On the subject of Roman postholes; it’s a surprising and little-known fact that there are three rows of double postholes running between Hadrian’s Wall and the ditch on the north side. 
Follow up articles
- D. W. Harding, I. M. Blake and P. J. Reynolds, 1993: An Iron Age settlement in Dorsett: Excavation and reconstruction. University of Edinburgh. Department of Archaeology Monograph series No. 1.
- G. Bersu, 1940: Excavations at Little Woodbury, Wiltshire. Part 1, the settlement revealed by excavation. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 6, 30 -111
- S. C. Hawkes, 1994: Longbridge Deverill Cow Down, Wiltshire, House 3: A Major Round House of the Early Iron Age. Oxford Journ. Archaeol. 13(1), 49-69
- A. P. Fitzpatrick, 1997: "Everyday life in Iron Age Wessex," in Adam Gwilt and Colin Haselgrove, eds: Reconstructing Iron Age Societies. Oxbow Monograph 71, Oxford, 73 – 86