28 October, 2008

9. Building - it's just not that simple

Archaeology is based on the understanding that artifacts can tell you much about the culture and individuals that created them. We don't have buildings to study, but the simple models and realisations of the prehistoric built environment, and the visual information they convey, are entirely at odds with the evidence from the study of other key technologies.

Building is a key technology; the traditional sedentary mixed farming model of the rural economy is possible only with the appropriate built environment. Southern England can provide abundant good quality timber for building, and, historically at least, building has been an important method by which society, or individuals, express themselves. Buildings protect people, activities, processes, and materials from the environment, including other people. If individuals or groups in a society gain disproportionate control over these resources, they will require a larger built environment.

It is important to be aware that by the 1st millennium BC, when roundhouses were being built, society had an elite, probably akin to the local ‘aristocracy’ of the early historical period. Little Woodbury and Pimperne Down are about as big as roundhouses get, and have twice the floor area of an ‘average’ 10m roundhouse. Both buildings were set in sizable enclosures protected by palisades and defended gateways. Whoever lived in these buildings had property to defend, and the resources to do it. We will never know the precise social circumstances of the occupants of this type of site, but they were clearly not at the bottom of society, and in terms of our current understanding, architecturally, they were the elite. Little Woodbury [1] and Pimperne Down [2] were probably top-class buildings in terms of technology and materials.

There is a natural tendency to conceive of prehistoric material culture in terms of inorganic materials, because that is what has survived, and what archaeologists tend to study. A recent find in Sweden of hundreds of wooden objects dating from the Iron Age is a rare exception.[3] It is easy to lose sight of the fact that the principal utility of development of cutting edge technology from stone, through bronze, to iron, was to facilitate the processing of organic materials such as wood.

Regardless of whether our ancestors first picked up a stick or a stone, woodworking is one of our most fundamental technologies. The vast majority of material culture in the First Millennium was organic, and probably mostly wood, and this remained the case until comparatively recently. The notion that woodworking, in the form of timber building, would have remained simple and basic is refuted by the study of other technologies such as metalworking.

Late Bronze Age Swords (British Museum)
Towards the end of the Bronze Age, around 800--700BC, the bronze swords known as Ewart Park phase, some made in Southern England, were about as good as it was possible to produce at that time. Swords are weapons, and have to be fit for the purpose. They are designed to kill people, and it is from this that they derive all their other associations with power, display, ritual, symbolism, and myth.

To get a consistent result when casting such a long object requires careful control of many aspects of the process, including the composition of the alloy. Chemical analysis of Ewart Park swords showed the alloys used were very consistent, and, for example, usually include 2% lead added to the copper and tin, amply demonstrating a high level of technical control over this part of the process. Swordsmiths were exceptional craftsmen, who had learnt from a tradition of local bronze making 2500 years old. Neil Burrage, a contemporary bronze worker, gives us a further valuable insight, describing these swords as the ‘holy grail’ of casting, and the bronzesmiths who produced them as “absolute masters”. In the Late Bronze Age we find lots of weapons, and in a world of swords, with the possibility of real fighting and killing, having a sword that is longer, harder, and sharper is a matter of life and death. This makes the swordsmith a crucial technician, and swordmaking a vital technology. The same reasoning is also applicable for builders and building.

It has become unfashionable among archaeologists to think about the extent of warfare in society. It is generally downplayed, and the old cliche of constantly warring tribes is best forgotten. However, we do have hill forts with extensive earth and timber defences, and a tendency toward defended sites. This is a specialist form of architecture; someone in society had to know how to construct an effective fortified gateway, for example. In the lowland parts of Southern England, where there are no hills, the ability to construct effective defensive structures, using timber, would appear even more important.

Archaeologists have few problems accepting that metalworkers were specialists, in the sense that they were not routinely engaged in the processes of agriculture that occupied the majority of the population. The level of skill and technical knowledge required for metalworking, and the importance of its products, would make the practitioner a significant member of society, a significance maintained only if knowledge of their technology remain exclusive.

Experimental archaeology has demonstrated that roundhouses can be built with simple technology, but not that they were. This visual conception of the prehistoric built environment as primitive may have fostered a view that building in prehistory was largely ‘self-build’. However, experimental archaeology has not replicated the most important parts of the process of creating a successful building: designing it, and then setting it out. Designing a building, and accurately setting out that plan on the ground -- In a non-literate society, that is the clever bit. Experimental archaeologists just accept the plan and rebuild it, and then are surprised at how well the proportions work.

Any society needs good buildings and structures that work, are fit as purposed, and do not fall down. Traditionally, this is left in the hands of specialists, because designing, setting out, and constructing a large building requires a set of unique skills. If we assume a good building would last at least a generation, an individual would have few opportunities to utilise these skills in his lifetime. Building is a vital technology; people’s lives, property, and security depend on it, and it is best left to an expert.

Further Reading:
[Accessed 11 October 2009] http://www.britishmuseum.org/default.aspx
References & Sources:
[1] G. Bersu (1940), 'Excavations at Little Woodbury, Wiltshire. Part 1, the settlement revealed by excavation'. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 6, pp. 30-111.
[2] 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.
[3] [Accessed 11 October 2009] http://www.archaeology.eu.com/weblog/2008_10_01_archaeologyeu_archive.html#745978838985779214
[Accessed 11 October 2009] http://www.stonepages.com/news/archives/002982.html
[4] [Accessed 11 October 2009] http://www.bronze-age-craft.com/