31 May, 2012

TSA at CAA2012

The highlight of my year so far was being invited to give a paper at the 40th Computer Applications in Archaeology conference hosted by the University Southampton .  Firstly, I should thank James Miles for inviting me,  my parents for funding it, and the University for Southampton  for putting on a tremendous conference; it has restored my faith in academic archaeology.

This is the abstract of my paper;

Over twenty years ago, I bought a computer and CAD software, only to discover that it took hours to print a shaded view of an Iron Age roundhouse, and besides, sticking a cone on top of a cylinder did nothing to advance my understanding of the archaeology of prehistoric timber buildings. So I returned to the basic data and to working on paper in plan, section, and elevation.
Prehistoric structures in Britain are largely evidenced by postholes, often in such numbers, that most archaeologists are content to pick out circles and rectangles on which to base their report, and ignore the rest of the dataset.  However, thinking about structures in terms of ’shape’ has led to simplistic models and inappropriate cross-cultural comparisons.
My research into understanding postholes has concentrated on reverse engineering timber structures from the known position of their posts, which ultimately leads to a consideration of how timbers were joined together.  Initially, I worked back from the medieval period, but more recently, I have worked forward from LBK buildings, which are the starting point for the range of technologies that both require, and support, complex built environments.
Modelling the relationship between an archaeological ground plan and the original superstructure requires a detailed consideration of tools, carpentry, building technology, and trees. It leads to ideas like offset jointing, reversed assembly, and importance of ties, unfamiliar concepts to most archaeologists.  However, with such ideas comes a basic set of principles that both explain the spatial distribution of archaeological features, and are a guide to the use of CAD to reconstruct and understand prehistoric architecture on a timber-by-timber basis.
Understanding the basics of posthole archaeology, and the technological culture it represents, unlocks the potential of CAD systems a research tool, making it possible to reconstruct buildings from LBK longhouses to Woodhenge in virtual reality.

As far as I could tell it when in the room, - nobody threw anything or walked out, and more generally delegates  coped fairly well with my enthusiasm for my  subject.  Encapsulating twenty years of research in 20mins was never going to be easy.
The quality and range of papers was excellent, and in some ways quite overwhelming, illustrating the application of IT to wide range of research going on throughout the world.
In stark contrast to my own recent experiences of academic archaeology, I was very impressed with all aspects of Southampton University, particularly by their ability to create research groups across departments, utilising knowledge and technology from a range of disciplines.
Particularly  gratifying was the emphasis on evidence based archaeology, everyone I met among this gathering of international archaeologists seemed to share my view that making up cosmologies, beliefs, and rituals was not an appropriate methodology for explaining complex archaeological datasets.
So, once again I would like to thank the staff and students at the University of Southampton  for their hospitality, and for what it is worth, I would heartily  recommend it as a place to study archaeology.


  1. Hi, Geoff,
    I'm happy to hear that your presentation went well. I hope you will receive some helpful comments on your work as a result.

  2. Thanks Martha, There a few lines I may follow up, when I get the time; it was great to be out there talking to other archaeologists.

  3. Hi Geoff,
    I happened to be in that room and was very much inspired by your approach and your passionate and interesting talk. I was slightly, but pleasantly, shocked by your Elsloo reconstruction. Wondered what Dutch post hole 'fetishists' might have to say to that. But maybe they have already picked up your ideas? I'm not into neolithic archaeology at all. Anyway, have been checking in on your blog now and then since Southampton. Keep up the interesting work!

  4. Hi Tijm
    Thanks for the positive comment; I will do post about LBK longhouses soon, as at least the Dutch can identify and excavate their buildings, and don't imagine they had a nomadic population who only stopped put up ritual posts and dig ritual pits[!].

  5. Certainly, we've got a long and good tradition in common sense interpretation of post holes and some structural arguing. Nevertheless, never seen such a high rising reconstruction of a LBK house before.

  6. For you Tijm - I will do a post on this next, as the structural evidence supports this view; LBK longhouses are not transitional between caves and real buildings; people upstairs / stock downstairs was not a medieval invention, nor were floors, doors, stairs, and windows.
    If you find a plan that interests you - even a neolithic one - send it to me and I will do an analysis.

  7. Dear Geoff

    Delighted that things are going better. I'm quite envious.


  8. Thanks Ned, well it's not all roses, but it's little things, that keep me going, I just spent a very enjoyable evening talking to Students about the Timber Wall. I'm envious that you get the chance to teach!

  9. It's me again - Martha. I just read an article about roundhouses in Scotland and was interested in getting your take on the larder idea:

  10. Thanks Martha, it's an interesting site, which as you say, supports my ideas about two storey buildings; it is strange that people find it difficult to imagine ancient Scottish people being able to use ladders let alone stairs. I recall one roundhouse site in Scotland which had burnt down and a quern stone lay above the burnt floor levels.

  11. "... a quern stone lay above the burnt floor levels."
    Good grief man, don't you know anything?
    A clear case of ritual blocking, after a deliberate act of squalid bungalow-style hut immolation, undertaken to appease the insatiable appetites of the Ancestors.

    It's all very simple ..
    Round house>round stone
    Four and twenty blackbirds>In my lady's chamber
    So let's chuck a rock on it. With the appropriate rituals, of course.

  12. Well, you could argue that postprocessualism proves that some peoples' ancestors were clearly to stupid to find their way upstairs. . . .

  13. Geoff said: ".. it is strange that people find it difficult to imagine ancient Scottish people being able to use ladders let alone stairs .."
    Well of course they couldn't, out of common decency. Otherwise people would be able to see what was under their kilts.

  14. At last a sensible argument against living upstairs . . . but "see what was under their up your 'plaid' " might work better in the Iron Age.

  15. Hi Geoff

    Congratulations on the recognition of your obvious talent and love!

  16. Thanks Tim, but it is still a long way short of recognition; nobody will pay me to teach archaeology - that would be turkeys voting for Christmas; while UK Universities are prepared to pay staff to make up beliefs, cosmologies, rituals and the like to solve complex archaeological datasets, there is no way back for them and no way forward for evidence based archaeology.

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