03 March, 2017

Systematic Irregularity; hidden in plain sight

When you start an excavation, or make an original observation, it may become your responsibility to give things a name, which is not as easy as it might seem. 
I inherited an archaeological site named Orsett “Cock”, the Cock in Question was the local pub, a perfectly reasonable and appropriate idea for archaeology in 1976, when google was a just spelling mistake.
It was working on the Orsett enclosure report, as I preferred to call it now, that I had to start naming parts of theoretical model structures, although I also floated an idea that I decided to call Systematic Irregularity.[1]
While it is my understanding that this idea exists in other forms, as an archaeologist doing detailed work on built environments, I had perceived that engineered structures were never square or rectangular, an observation that applied to both to foundations of small buildings and to layout of large ditched enclosures.
The original plans of six Little Woodbury 4 post structures [2]

Systematic Irregularity
Systematic irregularity is the deliberate avoidance of shapes comprising four right angles, [i.e., having right angles in opposite corners], which is apparent in the arts and crafts of Prehistory particularly the [Celtic] Iron Age.[3]  
Previously discussed here.
There is a sort of self-evident truth about the general observation which only really becomes significant when you consider its extent; this is something that goes much deeper than curvilinear art and design. 
Systematic Irregularity is observable as a design feature in the following areas;  
  1. Enclosures and “Celtic fields”; [above: [4]] these are almost by definition not quite regular, often this may be perceived as product of topography, but when you consider the lowlands, where aerial photography has revealed thousands of examples the pattern is remarkably irregular, even if 2 right angles, or 2 sets of parallel sides [parallelogram / rhombus] occur, squares are exceptional.
  2. Built environments;  [above: [5]] While the majority of British Iron buildings are considered to be round, smaller structures like 4 post structures [granaries] are always slightly irregular with one posthole slightly out of position.
  3. Celtic art and design; one of the defining characteristic of “Celtic” and other Prehistoric material is the general lack of right angles and the reliance of arcs or curve; this curvilinear  approach seems apparent in most aspects of material culture where evidence is available.  
  4. Square structures; I am aware three types of exceptions;
  • Roman-Celtic temples [above: [6]]
  • Burial enclosures  [below: [7]]
  • Burial pits    
On close inspection, none of the structures are precisely “square”, but it is clear they are fairly close, so that their common “religious” theme may be considered significant.



Heathrow Romano-Celtic Temple with Grid [outer c. 35" x 32" - inner 17"  x 14"] [8]

Systematic irregularity appears far more extensive than might be expected from handmade variation, carelessness, or an artistic approach material that embraces the curve; building and engineering in wood is about straight lines and regularity, even in a circular structure.
Even though these observations are made on the basis of a limited sample, they appear to be generally true enough to advance a theory that systematic irregularity represents a taboo against shapes with opposed right angles except perhaps for the resting places of the dead and structures associated with Gods.

In terms of observation, we are looking for the absence of something, which is only possible when we are clear about what it is that is not there.
Also, we tend only to notice things when they change, we are aware of the noise when it stops, or an object when it is missing, so it is only in contrast with the Roman culture for example, that we become aware that something is different.
It is not just the forts, buildings and art that change but utilitarian objects like swords and shields no longer have curving edges, whatever belief system drove systematic irregularity it was not generally shared by the Romans.

Coincidentally, it is the Roman fort at Vindolanda that provides an intriguing strand of evidence; when the fort is rebuilt in the Severan Period [per. VI] there is an annex with rows of stone roundhouse foundations.[9]  I would interpret these as being built to house hostages from those tribes in the intervening or adjacent areas between Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine frontier held to ensure their cooperation, [ as suggested by Tony Birley  [9]].  What is important about these buildings is that they imply that intended occupants, presumable British, won’t live in the rectangular structures normally built by the Romans.    
It is difficult to make this argument for individual types of articles, for example, there can are good practical reason why a sword should a curved edge, as well as technical reasons evident in the earlier cast bronze swords from which they developed.  So, in many ways, the strength of the argument lies in the irregularity buildings and larger engineered structures like enclosures.
Regular Irregularity
It is worth considering irregularity in structures more generally, although a good example is Moslem art & architecture which is also systemically irregular or rather systematically imperfect, while it may only be perceptible to the craftsman, geometric perfection is deliberately avoided, although never to the point where the art or structure is compromised, [left [10]].  As an archaeologist I am always wary of assuming that ideas originate with the culture well known for expressing or documenting them; practices in architecture are the result of a much longer term technical evolution. The earliest buildings in Western Europe are the longhouses of the LBK Neolithic farmers which have “irregular” looking plans apparently lacking the precision of later rectilinear buildings, which is legitimate expectation. [11]
While this all adds to impression of simplistic huts built by primitive people as illustrated in the visual culture of the past, in reality it is the footprint a complex building technology which can only be understood in 3 dimensions.  
Although they do not conform up to our expectations of regularity, it has been my experience that the layout of prehistoric building is very precise in terms of the projected superstructure.  More concisely, it is my understanding that because these structures have reversed assembly with offset jointing, the apparent irregularity in the foundation is contrived to create perfectly aligned rafter pairs to form a symmetrical roof.   
So here, at the beginning of timber architecture in Western Europe, we have a structural system where what we might perceive as irregularity, is an integral part of a system designed to create regular symmetrical structure.
There are seemingly good reasons why opposing right angles might not be present in this type of structure period, but there also an interesting tendency towards slightly tapering buildings which is also reflected in long barrows tombs, [houses for the dead].[12] It could be argued that during this period circularity was reserved for ceremonial or religious structures.
The Mundane Circle
There is a radical change to a preference for circular structures for the living and the dead in the Early Bronze Age, which I associate with the arrival of the Beaker Cultural Group.
This remains the general pattern into the Late Iron Age, where It could be argued that squares were reserved for ceremonial or religious structures during this period.  This apparent emphasis on circularity in domestic buildings makes systematic irregularity difficult to detect except in those small utilitarian buildings that are recognised. The technical issues of creating circular buildings from straight timbers, especially large ones, is easily overlooked; compared to rectilinear systems, they are more complex, require more resources, are less flexible, and more difficult to combine.  In terms of circularity, it is also important to understand that many structures are effectively polygonal being constructed with straight horizontal  timbers.
The notion of sacred geometry is just a cliché of the mysterious; however, there is a very real and specialised understanding that is required to create architecture. In many ways, it is this knowledge of practical geometry that defines architects/engineers as distinct class in society in much the same way as we might perceive smiths, only much older and more fundamental.  Ultimately, it is the culture of these craftsmen that theoretical structural archaeology is attempting to understand.
The pattern of mixed agriculture upon which our prehistoric and historic culture was based was only possible through effective architecture and civil engineering.  Regardless of how collective or specialised we might wish to view the process of construction, there has to be a mind with the appropriate set of conceptual skills in control of it all.  The built environment is so ever present that, except when it goes wrong, we hardly question how it got there or consider who designed it.  Much the same lack of curiosity is evident in archaeology where the evidence for structures is ever present on some types of site in the form of postholes which are largely ignored to such that the concept of a built environment is not even discussed; all the processes that happen indoors, especially those requiring specialist buildings are not part of our understanding of the past. 
Profane Geometry
Our awareness of the use of geometry in prehistory, like culture in general, has become fixated on the scared, the ritual, and what that tells us of peoples’ conception of themselves, although in reality, geometry is rarely considered beyond the superficially of shapes, usually circles, which magically infers a connection between things regardless of context or scale.  

Systematic irregularity does not have to be explained, since this would require detailed knowledge about the thinking of a preliterate culture.  It is a useful observation, especially to the process of theoretical modelling of buildings which is based on creation of geometrically accurate structures.  It also has to be taken into account in the process of identifying new posthole structures, which also has a prejudice towards regularity of pattern as evidence of structural relationships. 


Sources and further reading:
[1] G. A. Carter, 1998: Excavations at the Orsett ‘Cock’ enclosure, Essex, 1976. East Anglian Archaeology Report No 86.
[2] G. Bersu, 1940: Excavations at Little Woodbury, Wiltshire. Part 1, the settlement revealed by excavation. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 6, 30 -111
[3] I am using the term “Celtic” in a fairly loose and generic, not wishing to get into issues about the use of the word in archaeology, notwithstanding I have no particular view on the distribution  of systematic irregularity.
[4] Illustration cobbled together from Interpretative Devolution and the Iron Ages in Britain, B. Bevan, ed. Fig 10.3, p153 [Scrooby Top]. B. Cunliffe, 1978: Iron Age Communities in Britain: An Account of England, Scotland and Wales from the Seventh Century BC Until the Roman Conquest. 2nd edition. Routlage & Kegan Paul. Figs: [11.6] Aldwinkle Northhamptonshire, [11.5] Casterley Camp, Wiltshire, [11.14] Portsdown Hill, Hampshire, [2.4] South Lodge, Dorsett
[5] Taken from: Downs, Jane, 1997: The Shrine at Cadbury Castle: Belief enshrined. In Adam Gwilt and Colin Haselgrove, eds: Reconstructing Iron Age Societies. Oxbow Monograph 71, Oxford, 145–152
[6] A. C. King & G. Soffe, 1994: The Iron Age and Roman temple on Hayling Island, in A. P. Fitzpatrick and E. L. Morris, eds.: The Iron Age in Wessex: recent work, Salisbury: Trust for Wessex Archaeology, 114-16
[7] S. Piggott, 1965: Ancient Europe, Edinburgh University Press: Fig 131, p 233
[8] W. F. Grimes and J. Close-Brooks, 1993: Caesar’s Camp, Heathrow, Middlesex. Proc Prehist Soc 59, 299-317
[9] Burley R 2009, Vindolanda A Roman fort on Hadrians Wall. Amberley ISBN978-1-84868-210-8  p. 140
[10] [15] From Figure 5: http://www.geometricdesign.co.uk/perfect.htm Taken from: Martin Lings, 1987: Splendours of Qur'an Calligraphy and Illumination ISBN: 0500976481 Interlink Pub Group Inc.
[11] PJR Modderman (1970), 'Linearbandkeramik aus Elsloo und Stein 2.' Tafelband, Leiden Univ., Faculty of Archaeology.
PJR Modderman (1975), 'Elsloo, a Neolithic farming community in the Netherlands,' in Bruce-Mitford, R L S, Recent archaeological excavations in Europe, Chapter IX.
PJR Modderman (1985), D'ie Bandkeramik im Graetheidegebiet, Niederländisch-Limburg.' Berichte der Römisch- Germanischen Kommission, 66::25-121.

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