Speaking of beer, back in some golden summer of British archaeology, before the invention of health and safety, when the only unit of alcohol of note was a pint, muddy people would sit in pubs and have conversations about what they had just dug up, and what it all meant. If it was not obvious, at some point someone would say “it must be ritual then,” and we would all laugh, and then someone would be sent for to the bar for some more inspiration.
Thirty years on, and the professor will throw you out of their lecture if you laugh when they tell you that postholes are “ritual”.
The idea that postholes could be ritual was funny, but now is very important, since it is to ascribe a function and purpose to them so vague, but yet potentially significant, that a whole new type of theoretical archaeology can float its boat on a vast sea of possibilities. This area is wonderfully rich in uncertainty and doubt, and in this new (post-processual) archaeology, avowedly not based on ‘common sense’ or anything that may have constituted a ‘traditional’ approach, ethno-archaeology is a sort of force multiplier for any argument: "This could be true because other cultures do this way." [see Glossary below]
British archaeology developed in the days of empire, when it was somehow appropriate that the archaeologists of the world’s dominant imperial nation should study the remains other great imperial civilisations. It is only natural that we should identify with cultures like the Romans; after all we brought civilisation to backward primitive peoples, much as they had done. Our own unimpressive native archaeology was not really appropriate for a nation of our status, and it became natural see it in terms of the other primitive cultures like tribal Africa: after all, they had the same shaped buildings. Thus it was that archaeologist started to view contemporary tribal Africa as some form of analogue for British prehistory, and the ethnographers and ethno-archaeologists moved in.
As a result, structures built for a different environment, by different cultures with different raw materials, were shoe-horned into a one-size fits all model of the Bronze Age/Iron Age roundhouse. Once this had been realised physically, and since seeing is believing, despite it's being impractical and dysfunctional, this rustic gazebo was established as the one and only possible model of reality.
An experimental archaeologist built a construct, then theoretical archaeologists explained the symbolism of this space and what it tells us about the cosmology of its 'builders' and 'occupants'. Archaeology has been stuck in this logical and visual feedback loop for some time now.
Since this quasi-African mud hut is seen as the pinnacle of prehistoric building, there is no need to consider the subject further. Pre-Roman people were simply too primitive to have architecture or complex buildings of any scale. Archaeologists have anthropomorphised their own structural illiteracy and projected it onto the past.
As a result of decades of theory, and the characterisation of the evidence for the built environment as ‘ritual’,and primitive, archaeology is becoming increasingly like some form of religion, with its own vocabulary, peer-reviewed cosmology, and reasoning, increasing divorced from what passes for rational thought for the rest of us. Academic archaeologists are losing the ability to interpret the evidence, deconstruct each other's arguments, or relate to civilians. ‘Timber circles’ can be ritual structures without ever really defining what rituals are involved. Whether we are talking about outbreaks of Early Bronze Age mummers and morris men doing mass maypole dancing, or figures in diaphanous white robes waving artifacts at the sky, can be left to the imagination of the reader.
Back to you and I having a chat down the pub: since there is nobody to argue for the other side, it's going to be a bit one sided, so I am going to introduce you to my imaginary friend, who holds opposite, but entirely typical, views; a modern academic archaeologist, a sort of composite nemesis, a bogus bête noire, a fantasy adversary: meet Dr Gary Barking-Overrun.
I would like to introduce you to a fictitious friend of mine, Dr Barking-Overrun of Tyneside University. Gary is a senior lecturer at the School of Archaeology, Classics, and Historical studies. He specialises in the archaeology of death, identity, and ritual in Neolithic and early Bronze Age Britain. His research includes cosmology, self-identity, and belief in prehistoric Europe, in particular social reproduction through mortuary practices and ritual spaces. He also has a long term interest in the symbolism of animal ornament on Anglo-Saxon pottery in Cambridgeshire.
His most recent book, Avon River of Death, is an exploration of the ritual landscape of Salisbury Plain, and central symbolism of the River Avon in the landscape, connecting its material and spiritual aspects with its occupants, a relationship that is perpetuated through a praxis of mythmaking and ritual, and through the experience and the reciprocal symbolism of sacred spaces, in which the beliefs and cosmology of living are shared with those of the ancestors, in creating a collective sense of space and elemental belonging.
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other
Therefore . .
Extract from Chapter II, Tao te ching, Lao-Tzu, c. C6th – C4th bce
The word dialectic, in its early Socratic/Platonic sense, comes from a form of written philosophical discourse between two people, the master and the pupil, for example, allowing the author to deal with objections and opposing points of view. Obviously it’s a fix; the writer is bound to win the argument, and the philosophical patsy will fall into the traps, and will eventually have to concede all the main points.
Since you already have the 45,000 words in this blog to get where I am coming from, I am not concerned with countering arguments, or promoting my own way of thinking, what I'm trying to depict is a particular way of thinking about the evidence. I am trying to be reasonably fair, and every opinion that Gary holds represents views expressed by academics to me, in many cases repeating ideas and conclusions of prominent academics that have become the ‘prevailing’ view.
Academic archaeology does not ‘think’ anything en masse, but there are certain trends in thinking that are at the opposite end of a spectrum from my own on the issue of postholes. As it would be unreasonable to expect you go away and spend a couple of years catching up on the latest in archaeological thinking, and besides, when it comes to built environment, we have established that much of the accepted wisdom is erroneous. I am going to try to give an impression of the way some prehistorians think and argue, using a very old fashioned method.
Picture a pub in northern England on a late summer's day. It’s raining, which is why we are in the pub. To put this imagined dialog into its proper social perspective, Gary is younger than me, and he is a well-paid, respected, academic archaeologist. I am none of the above, and a student. In terms of my responses, sometimes exactly where I should position my tongue, relative to cheeks and teeth, etc., is problematic. Also, I cannot deploy any technical arguments because, like many archaeologists, he is from an ‘arts’ background, and arguments concerning gravity, mechanics, and the basics of structures , could go over his head, which would be awkward.
Act 1 Scene I Dr B-O, ”So what is this research about?”
GC, “I study buildings and structures represented by postholes; it’s what we used to call structural archaeology."
Dr B-O, ”You can’t call it ‘structural archaeology’ – that will only confuse people. Structural archaeology is the application of structuralism to archaeology.”
GC, “Isn’t that ‘structuralist’ archaeology?“
Dr B-O. ”No.”
GC, “Well, it’s about how to find, and understand, prehistoric buildings from postholes evidence.“
Dr B-O, ”So, it’s about roundhouses then?”
GC, “It’s actually about understanding those postholes, usually the majority, that are not roundhouses, that are usually ignored. But obviously I will have to cover roundhouses, which I think are widely misunderstood."
Dr B-O, ”On the contrary, I think we are begining to understand roundhouses now.”
GC, “What? Have I missed a meeting?"
Dr B-O, “We know the entrances are aligned on the east or south-east for cosmological reasons, related to the position of the sun.”
GC, “But yurts are Mongolian tents - and I think these buildings had windows."
Dr B-O, "There is no evidence for that; are you really suggesting prehistoric buildings had windows?”
GC, “Yes, and stairs.“
Dr B-O, "Stairs? Why not ladders?”
GC, “Old people and children can’t climb ladders."
Dr B-O, "You would have to find some pretty good parallels for that, and I don’t think roundhouses have stairs in Africa. ”
GC, “I don’t do ethnographic parallels – I like to think of prehistoric architecture as the antecedents of medieval buildings – which would undoubtedly be very different if bamboo rather than oak was native to this island."
Dr B-O, "But Iron age buildings are round; medieval building are rectilinear. And the fact remains that most our advances in interpretation have come through ethnography. Understanding the burial practices in Madagascar led to the realisation that Stonehenge represented a structure to do with death and the ancestors, while wooden henges like Woodhenge are symbolic of life and associated with things like autumn feasting. That's the latest thinking - it' s all covered in my book ”
GC, “Oh! - Stone is symbolic of death in Madagascar therefore stone circles are associated with death and therefore timber circles are associated with life, Q, E, D -- that argument. Well, what about south-east England? They have got no stone. Or parts of Scotland where there is no wood? And besides timber circles are buildings.”
Dr B-O, ”That old chestnut! I think you’ll find most people accept that they are ritual structures.”
GC, “Free standing circles of posts where people met outside - for ritual feasting – in the autumn – in England?"
Dr B-O, "That is hardly a valid argument! The building ideas have been looked at. They are too big to be roofed, and if they were, it would have left a huge drip gully and there is no evidence for that; they are ritual.”
GC, “You clearly using different rainfall figures for water runoff calculations from me, and what about structures in Ireland like Navan Fort, that was built 2000 years later. You can’t say that is ritual.“
Dr B-O, "They are probably a later reinvention of tradition, kept alive by mythology and storytelling.”
GC, “You can’t recite a building; you need an architect and builders. Clearly, I think prehistoric architects were more competent, and their buildings more complex, than you imagine.”
Dr B-O, "We will just have to agree to disagree then, but I don’t think people are willing to believe they are not ritual. Perhaps symbolic of buildings, and I think that if you are going to postulate the existence of prehistoric architects, you going to find some pretty good ethnographic parallels. Have you looked what do they do in Africa?"
GC, “No, the existence of an architect is implicit in the nature of the architecture. Experimental archaeologists miss out on the design and setting-out stages of the building process. They take the plan as a given. Who do you imagine builds the houses of elite?”
Dr B-O, “There is surprisingly little social differentiation in terms of size, or much variation in function in roundhouses.”
GC, “That may be true of reconstructions -- but it does not apply to the evidence, and built environments usually comprise more than one building; I have found round and rectilinear structures together at Springfield Lyons.”
Dr B-O, “That sounds highly unlikely! Why would you have round and square buildings on the same site?”
GC, “ Why not? They are not mutually exclusive forms. They have this type of structure on the continent, just across the channel. Remarkably, I think the rectangular buildings are part of the structure of the fort.”
Dr B-O, “The site is a probably a farm, albeit high status and defended, perhaps with ritual uses. In terms of distribution of finds, the area around the entrance is very clean, which contrasts with the rear of the site, suggesting some formal arrangement and zoning of the space.”
GC “A farm! It's got a ditch, box rampart, and more military metalworking debris than anywhere else in the country, and the only reason the open area is ‘clean’ in terms of finds is because there are no features there! But interestingly, I think one, the rectangular building at the rear, has a smoke bay and is associated with weapons manufacture.”
Dr B-O, “But a lot of the metalworking debris at Springfield Lyons comes from the ditch terminals near the entrance, spatially outside the enclosure, suggesting the swords and another weapons were brought to the site in their moulds, which were then broken and ritually thrown in the ditch in some form of structured deposition, while the sword or other artefact was ceremonially passed inside the enclosure to the elite occupant.”
GC, “What unfinished! It's in the ditch because you don’t want metalworking debris lying around. It’s toxic; heavy metals that sort of thing, so you take it out of the gate and hoy it in the ditch, simple. This is a fort, there are no suitable hills in Essex, and you need competent architects or builders to create defensive structures. It is like a metalworking -- it’s a key technology in a military society."
Dr B-O, “You are making a lot of assumptions about the role of weapons. Many were probably made as ritual odjects for deposition and display. And hillforts may not simply be defensive in a military sense; they may have great significance in protecting the occupants from perceived spiritual dangers and supernatural forces.”
GC, “Mmm . . . “Act 1 Scene II
Several hours later. It’s still raining . . .
Dr B-O, “. . . the Ibo for example, err ethno-archae-Oh bugger! I ‘ve got a train to catch.”
GC, “Quite frawnkly, I don’t give a ‘king Matabele gumbo bead for ethnograwical parodies – You can hoy the lot in the ‘king great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River. It’s got absolutely buggerall to do with postholes.”
Dr B-O, "Calm down, we only making up ‘king stories about the past – who gives a Nuns. . . . What time is it?”
GC, “Wednesday. So d’you see the match?"
Dr B-O, “Yeah, ‘king terrible! Time for a short?”
... and there we must draw a veil over proceedings, and leave our little reverie and return to what passes for reality.
Academic archaeologists are top people, well read in the literature of their own field. It is not their fault that field archaeologists don’t understand and interpret the majority of the postholes that they find. Similarly, it not the field archaeologists' fault that academic archaeologists have not seen fit to direct research into solving this problem. Academic literature is quite a closed box. You can be the leading expert on ‘roundhouses,’ for example, having read all the reports, and synthesised the material, and despite this level of literacy, still be ‘structurally illiterate’, largely because British prehistory identifies buildings predominantly on shape, and their similarity to the shape of other structures identified on other sites.
You can legitimately apply social and architectural theory to a built environment that you understand and can set in some wider context, but apply them to the constructs of experimental archaeologists and artistic representation of the same thing, and you are asking for trouble. It’s academic feng shui.
Glossary of Terms
Dialectics: the art or practice of arriving at the truth by the exchange of logical arguments http://www.answers.com/topic/dialectic
Structuralism: A method of analysing phenomena; chiefly characterized by contrasting the elemental structures of the phenomena in a system of binary opposition; [e.g. sacred: profane, dirty: clean]. http://www.answers.com/topic/structuralism
Ethno-archaeology: A branch of archaeology that uses data from the study of contemporary cultures to inform the examination and interpretation of the archaeological record. http://www.answers.com/topic/ethnoarchaeology-1
Ritual: [adjective]. Associated with or performed according to a rite or ritual; Being part of an established routine. [From Latin rītuālis, of rites, from rītus, rite.] http://www.answers.com/topic/ritual
Post-processual archaeology: I don’t think anybody is quite sure about this, but it covers most new ideas about archaeology in the last 30 years that are different than ideas developed in the previous 30 years. http://www.answers.com/topic/post-processual-archaeology-1
Graphic based on; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tao-te-ching.png  See post 19 & onwards http://structuralarchaeology.blogspot.com/2009/01/19-proper-study-of-mankind-is-postholes.html Special thanks to University of Tyneside . Book Cover brought to you by UTP