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.
Roundhouses; a coping strategy
In general, the actual work of excavation and report writing is done by people like me, judged too stupid to teach archaeology, while those who stay on at university to instruct the next generation, can avoid any practical involvement in the process.  Since the merit is reading reports, not in writing them, there is a danger that what universities teach is what they know - how to teach and read archaeology. 
How to do archaeology – write a report about the unique piece of cultural heritage that you have just destroyed – is something you’ll probably pick up along the way, or so you hope as you hack your way through the topsoil with a JCB....  
In the end, roundhouses are just one of those stories we tell ourselves, a myth to ward off the chaos, and tame the complexity that confronts us; it is an article of faith on which we have become dependent, a candle lit against the darkness of the past.
 How real and imagined roundhouses simplify interpretation; Springfield Lyon's Essex  [Bronze Age] A: All period features. B: Roundhouses and rampart. C: Reconstruction [1]
Nb. Nice picture, but it's a mirror image of the actual archaeology, and only one building is a real roundhouse.  There is considerably more soil in the rampart than could have come from the ditch, and it is piled at an unstable angle. The artist did not understand how a box rampart works, and has created a composite structure incorporating features of various styles of defence. 
  
Guilty secrets; Mea Culpa
For all practical purposes, identifying the roundhouses is job done for the structural evidence, and while this might leave the majority of the postholes un-interpreted, since they are not roundhouses, they can add nothing to the collective narrative.
Given the time and expense invested in excavation, the process is under pressure to produce, and since “roundhouses” are the only relevant transferable currency, many reports contain join the dot roundhouses, in which a selection of disparate features, or perhaps those forming an arc, are converted by a dotted line into a circle and significantly enhancing roundhouse yield.
It is always difficult to draw attention to shortcomings in archaeological reports, while it is the only way to make progress, it’s not the way the friends or influence people; I tend to pick sites I have some vague connection with, and luckily, my own work at Orsett exhibited most of the main symptoms of roundhouse mania  [2].
Drip Gullies;  Magical thinking
The “drip gully“ more than any other concept, illustrates the psychosis of roundhouse, it is usually self-contained curving or even penannular feature in the subsoil, often up 2’ / 60 cm deep, apparently formed by either;
  • Water dripping off the roof of a roundhouse – magically dissolving the soil away to form a feature, or
  • Builders deliberately digging a trench to fill with water from the roof – an anti-drain.
The idea of encouraging water to soak into the ground next to the building instead of taking it away using gravity [a drain] is a truly senseless, especially on impermeable soils, where it only serves to collect water.
However, by far the most important thing about “drip gullies” is that they often represent the only evidence for a building; we have now reached the point where roundhouses themselves are invisible, and only the impression – deep into the subsoil - left by water dripping off the roof has survived.
A "roundhouse" I saw excavated at Blyth Northumberland was defined by a "drip gully", polygonal feature cut into impermeable boulder clay, with traces of the timber footing clearly visible in the section. This was understood  a "drip gully" caused by water dripping off the roof of building supported on an invisible wall.  [3]

Naturally, this is not really supported by the evidence, however, it is a point of connection with other reports, and importantly, any relatively short curving feature can be extrapolated create yet another roundhouse.

Inappropriate relationships; exotic fantasies
Realistically, postholes are only really perceived as significant if they form in a circle, but since the majority don't,  from this point onwards archaeology is effectively broken as a serious study . The identification of structures with no real geometric or structural integrity, simply on the basis of apparent circularity, only compounds the error.
Circularity, real or imagined may be the lowest common denominator, imparting both meaning and significance to otherwise uniform features, distinguishing them from others in data set. At a global level it provides connectivity with circularity in other data sets, allowing for cross-cultural comparisons; while igloos are round, they are made from different materials for a different environment by a different culture, which is why equatorial African huts are used as a basis for reconstructions [!]; although tents and yurts of nomadic pastoralists deserve a dishonourable mention. 
While, because of the termites, there is no tradition of timber framed building in Africa,  they do have round huts and  apparently that’s more than enough evidence to assume their buildings were the same as ours.

Meanwhile, back in the reality of the predominantly temperate heavily wooded, mountainous and marshy environment of post glacial north-west Europe, agriculture required a lot of fixed plant and is predicated on a complex built environment.  Many activities that might be accomplished in the open further south like threshing, milking, over wintering stock for example may have to done indoors as agriculture moved north.  
It is just how it works here, what people do in Africa or New Guinea is not relevant, and remember - it's a long way to come by canoe .

Ink Blot Test; Joining the dots.
Archaeology has developed my making connections between things, principally by looking for similarities in items such as pottery.  Most of the structures identified as a “roundhouse” tend to be unique, with a rough approximation of circularity being the only common factor; however, due to some impaired reasoning this opens the way to make simplistic and inappropriate connections between unrelated phenomena on the basis of this superficial similarity.
Above/ left: [4]
  • Can you see the pattern? 
  • Does it look familiar?
  • What do you think it is?
  • How do you feel about that?
  • Are you sure?
Let’s look again at some of the important the symptoms of roundhouse psychosis:
  • Looking for exclusively for this phenomena
  • Imposing this pattern of expectation on the evidence
  • Ignoring evidence that does not conform with expectation
  • Seeing this pattern in unrelated or inappropriate data
  • Inferring their presence from the absence of evidence
Architectural “thinking” in British Prehistory is dominated by this unhealthy concentration on a dysfunctional and delusory construct, which has led to an imaginary world devoid of functional buildings, cleaned of all irrelevant structures, leaving a pristine landscape of no practical value to anyone with the misfortune to have to live there.  Quite how any sort of complex agricultural society could have been run from these rustic gazebos has never been fully explained; the problem is that people actually lived and worked in the Iron Age, they weren’t just camping.

The Acrophobic Roundhouse; Fear of Heights
Truth has become an abstract concept in archaeology, especially if it conflicts with the images in people’s minds; you may have a mental picture of roundhouse, you may also have one of Jesus; neither is real, but both can influence the way you think.  
If I tell you that most of the substantial surviving Iron Age buildings were multi-storey, you may find the statement troubling, but it happens to be true; think about it.  ?
For many people the idea of multi-storey roundhouses cannot be true because of the fumes from the fire would choke everyone upstairs; the belief in the model is so absolute that the central hearth can be presumed without the need for evidence. This central hearth may be a fiction, but it is sustained by belief which makes evidence unnecessary, such is the nature of this psychosis.
   
Health warning 
While the assertions I have made about roundhouses may be evidentially true; there was no big open space with central hearth in the buildings I have discussed; archaeology is a faith based study, and what people believe is what matters.  Articles of faith, rituals, and superstitions, may be irrational or unfounded, but they are important coping strategies. So, regardless of  their debilitating effect on other more rational cognitive processes, these dependencies are unlikely to be given up voluntarily.  Bizarrely, roundhouses seem to be one of the few things most people seem comfortable with, and apart from stones and mounds, it is about the only substantive thing British Prehistory has to sell to people. 
Obviously, there are no poor universities, courses or lecturers, only poor students, so if you are a student, it would be most unwise to draw anyone’s attention to the evidence. While this is how we got here in the first place, the best way to personal progress in a subject like archaeology is by confirming and reinforcing existing prejudice.   My advice is to read and repeat.  If you can think, best keep it to yourself, it disturbs and unsettles those who can't, but it may come in useful if you do badly in your exams – you might end up being an archaeologist and having to write reports. 
I doubt any student has deep enough pockets or a long enough tongue to successfully dislodge a faith based concept like roundhouses.  It might be disappointing to discover that this bit is all just make believe, after all you paid a real money for it, but trust me, what is important in archaeology is having a job.
Meanwhile, here on the internet, this is the only place to find a mature post-university level narrative about timber engineering; but be warned, Prehistoric buildings were built by adults, so this is for grownups, it is quite complicated, because you can only dumb a subject so down far before it is really only credible to its proponents and children.

Note: If you are effected by any of the issues raised in this post then please feel free to comment.  

More detail on this topic here...


Sources and further reading
[1] D. G. Buckley and J. D. Hedges (1987), The Bronze Age and Saxon settlements at Springfield Lyons, Essex. Essex County Council, Occasional Paper No.5.
[2] G. A. Carter, 1998: Excavations at the Orsett ‘Cock’ enclosure, Essex, 1976. East Anglian Archaeology Report No 86.
[3] TWM Archaeology. Unpublished [?] Grey Literature.
[4] Woodhenge Post Ring F;
Cunnington, M. E. (1929) Woodhenge. Devizes
Also, 
G. Bersu: 1940: Excavations at Little Woodbury, Wiltshire. Part 1, the settlement revealed by excavation. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 6, 30 -111


13 comments:

Odin's Raven said...

Lies, dammed lies, statistics ... and archaeology?

Geoff Carter said...

...well, it's more what you would call, projection, more projection, sloppy thinking....and new archaeology.

DDeden said...

Did they have hosepipe in Iron Age Britain?

http://archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com/2014/09/stonehenge-complete-circle-evidence.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+TheArchaeologyNewsNetwork+%28The+Archaeology+News+Network%29#.VAXzC-zD-ig

Geoff Carter said...

.... I have always maintained it was complete circuit - it's the only way the engineering can work.

Anonymous said...

The line drawing of Springfield Lyons has really hammered home to me the point you made in earlier blogs with 3d CAD (?) work. It's very effective, as it was when you used it previously.


Quick question if I may. How many entrances to the enclosed area of Springfield Lyons was there evidence for? Even allowing for some artistic leeway, I just can't understand a reason why you'd have paired entrances so close together as shown in the roundhouse version? Tradesman's entrance perhaps, written with tongue firmly in cheek? Is there a better explanation for the gaps in the earthworks?

Glad to read more of your thoughts on this. KBO as one of our prime ministers expressed it.

All the best,

Simon

Geoff Carter said...

Hi Simon thank you for your comment; all the images are ‘developed’ from my original 1990’s CAD images, [the original model is on 5.5” and window 3.1 software].
Very interesting question about the entrances;. several factors to consider;
1. I did 2 weeks analysis over 20 years ago – [still got the plans], to take it further would require access to achieve;
2. Because we have a box rampart – the ‘ditch’ spoil fills of the rampart
3. For structural stability the ditch can’t be too close [sand and gravel natural]
4. The ditch is therefore more of a quarry and its gaps don’t necessity corresponds to entrances.
5. Complex archaeology with important bits missing.

Therefor I am not sure; I think I could see an entrance at the rear, and possibly a “sally port” to the north; this could be is a “tradesman’s entrance” – raw materials for the forge most likely.
*** The building behind the Roundhouse is almost certainly forge, it has a smoke bay, is surrounded by casting pits and more Ewart Prarkish metalworking than the rest of Britain put together.
*** It is a very aggressive structure; I think it’s more for protecting personal assets than communal, politically it’s more like a motte and bailey.
*** This is an internationally important building / site - which broke my heart to see it dumbed down - such a waste.

[I think MPP says it is a farm with ritual uses which has got clean Zones//dirty zones – what you get for looking at the pictures ].

Geoff Carter said...

PS. Look at continental sites of this period [like Goldberg], with rectangular buildings - just across the sea!

Anonymous said...

Hugely appreciate the reply Geoff, especially given limits on what you have to hand. Thank you. Lower number you suggest seems to fit more with the purpose of spending the time to create a rampart for sure.

If you strip away the time period, it's vaguely how I imagined the Anglo-Saxon hall in Ivanhoe as a kid. It's even got a belltower (joke!).

Interesting link to Goldberg/Ipf area. Seems perhaps more plausible than just copying a nearby neolithic enclosure as some have suggested? Function as important as form perhaps? Sure they called some of the South German enclosures 'manor houses' for a period. But then presumably they figured out the rituals which meant they weren't...

Problem with you suggesting an alternative interpretation of these buildings is that you raise a lot of questions!

All the best,

Simon

Geoff Carter said...

Hi Simon It's the curse of superficiality - comparing things on the basis of shape without any real conception of what you are dealing with. eg;
Stone circles = timber circles - [both circles]
Neolithic longhouse = New Guinea longhouse [both are long].
So it's all form often with little no conception of function; thus we end up with dysfunctional past where ritual and cosmology are intimately "understood" - but we have yet to identify a woodshed or stable.
Building don't exist until you have parallels - which is why I started developing TSA.
I did not want to offer any specific parallels - only to point out that to consider the nature of archaeology on the East Coast in isolation without reference to the continent is short sighted.

I hope I will return to Springfield Lyons, as military metalworking buildings are not common, and of interest to bronze workers.

Anonymous said...

Hi Geoff,

point taken on Goldberg reference; was thinking more in terms of metalworking sites and the function side rather than the form. eg around Ipf where we seem to have 'farms' in ditch and palisade (?) enclosures which, supposedly incidentally, did a lot of metalwork and were built in places with ready access to the needed ore.

As you say, it's the farm without a cattle shed or grain storage problem.

Am very intrigued by what you have said on Springfield Lyons and do hope you get chance to revisit the subject, amongst a long list of others which I'd love to see you delve into in further depth. The questions raised by your work are fascinating ones and extend beyond the buildings themselves; a major site for military (sword?)metal working surely doesn't exist in isolation.

All the best,

Simon

Geoff Carter said...

Cheers Simon
One final point - if you have a palisade [or rampart], you have a lot more than stock to defend; consider the resources required to build and defend [man]such a structure;I can only see a manorial status or above. [Eg Little Woodbury].

Odin's Raven said...

It seems that new opportunities for prehistoric roofers are opening around Stonehenge, including rectangular buildings.
BBC Stonehenge

Geoff Carter said...

. . . .You never know they might even get their heads around the idea of built environments.
It seriously messes up the perception of the landscape brigade - looking through the eyes of the Prehistoric dead with the help of whole bunch of long words and a touch of magic from Claude Lévi-Strauss.