05 July, 2009

31. Primitive Rituals

I hope you read article no. 30. That’s where I let slip that ‘timber circles’ were buildings, some roundhouses were multi-storey, and Hadrian had a timber wall for while -- so you know I’m not here for the beer. But I wish we both down the pub; we could have a chat about all this, a dialogue where we could respond to each other. It would be good: I like you a lot already; you have had the good sense, taste, and intellectual interest to invest your hard won browsing time in reading this blog.

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.

Almost nothing is unparalleled in Ethnography
My primary experience of archaeology is through a trowel. I appreciate the subtlety and difficulty of separating the physical layers of the past. Theoretical structural archaeology is all very boring and back to basics; it’s prosaic, grounded, and has an underlying common sense approach. It seeks to set the evidence of prehistoric building in the context of local materials and conditions, seeing these structures as antecedents of the historical built environment. However, I was lucky; just when I was called up to interpret the evidence for ancient archaeological structures, I found myself sharing an office with people who were experts on the ancient timber buildings of the area and others who understood trees and woodland; county councils were interesting places to work. It’s largely down to the extraordinary kindness and patience of people like the late Mike Wadhams, that I managed to grasp something of the nature of timber structures, and that you are reading this.

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.

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[1]
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.

The Prologue
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 [2], 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, “My farmhouse at 800 feet still faces east. So it’s not the prevailing west or south-west wind then?”
Dr B-O, ”No, not in the Iron Age. It’s clear that they are laid out in relation to the passage of the sun during the day, which illuminates different parts of the interior, dictating the activities, and the essential symbolism of each part of the house, linking it to the wider cycles of time, the year and life. The interior is clearly symbolic of a wider cosmology. They are similar to yurts in this respect.”

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.

It is little short of breathtaking naivety that links buildings of similar shape, and not unlike Eric Von Däniken et al linking all the pyramids. All circular structures are not somehow globally-related at some deep symbolic level, any more than rectangular structures are.
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.

In memoriam
For those who like a little mysterious miasma to shroud their vision of the past, and crave a deeper symbolic meaning in archaeological features, consider this:
The thousands of young oak trees that gave their lives prematurely, have a right to be recognised as architecture, and not simply mythologized as ritual, so that proper respect to be paid to the thousands of postholes that mark their graves.

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
Sources and further reading:
Cartoons by B.Kliban from: The Biggest Tongue in Tunisia and other drawings. Penguin 1986. ISBN0140072209; &
Never Eat anything bigger than your head,& other drawings. Eyre Methuin ISBN 041339118. More on the cartoonist B Kliban : http://www.pbase.com/csw62/kliban & http://lambiek.net/artists/k/kliban.htm
Photographs from Spike Milligan. Transports of delight. Penguin ISBN 0140040560
[1] http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html From a translation by S. Mitchell
Graphic based on;
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tao-te-ching.png [2] 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


Vincent said...

[APPLAUSE] Bravo! If only I could write like you Geoff, that's a work of art.

Geoff Carter said...

Thanks Vincent, and thank you for reading it.
It's strange for a dyslexic - writing things down gets you in trouble in education, so I still find writing very stressful, and why it takes weeks to do a post. (and it's still full of errors!)

Martha Murphy said...

I'll add my Bravo! to the above.

I, like you, have been frustrated by "academia." I love research and was forced out into the cold, hard world to earn a living, so I have a lot of empathy with where you are coming from.

It's always our assumptions or our metaphors, that get in the way of discoveries. I love the story Dennis Stanford told about how archaeologists in America quit digging when they find Clovis stuff, because they've been taught there's nothing older than that here. And how long did it take to figure out that more shoreline and potential living space was exposed during the glacial periods?

So hang in there!

It seems to me the circle is the more natural form for any building until split or sawn planks came into common use. Corners have no real purpose, even in our homes today. They are usually wasted space. So a rectangular or square building seems more likely to call for ritual as an explanation.

In our town we have one circular house from the early 1900s that apparently led to a problem that might be overlooked. It was the home in which the dean of girls at our high school grew up. I've heard it said that the reason she never married was that it's hard to corner a man in a round house.


Geoff Carter said...

Thanks Martha,
While I may be frustrated with the system, I would not be here without some very fine academics, and what concerned me most about my recent experience of university was the effect of that an attitude of indifference and disinterest had on their students.
Most of the postgraduate students, particularly overseas students, who were more directly aware how much they were paying, were unhappy, particularly about the lack of time spent with staff in some sort of face to face teaching situations.
Teaching the next generation is a responsible and important job, and should be a privilege, and when the staff becomes disenchanted and cynical about their subjects/ institutions it does not bode well for their students.

The sexual politics of roundhouse is far too complex a topic for a structural archaeologist, what you want is a ‘structuralist’ archaeologist – better able to conceive of a building in terms of a male-female dialectic.

Ornithophobe said...

I'd love to say something brilliant and witty here- but I've just read through the first 31 entries and it's now 4:45 am. So I'm going to leave it at this: Thank you. You've answered a lot of the questions that pop into my head as I'm making my way through my textbooks (I'm an anthropology student) and you've validated a certain uncomfortable suspicion that's been growing in my mind. (I've begun to wince at the words "ritual use," in the last couple of years.)

Anyway- I'll be back tomorrow to finish my reading, and I've added you to the blogs I follow. Great site, wonderfully well written and clearly explained.

Geoff Carter said...

Thank you for taking so much time to read my articles. I am so pleased they hit the spot for you.

I am not picking holes in existing ideas for the fun of it. The narrative is actually going somewhere very exciting [- as soon as I can finish the next set of drawings of the building at Woodhenge].

When you understand something, you do not need the word 'ritual'; it is unnecessary to describe a Christian church or chalice as 'ritual', because we can offer more specific definitions and descriptions.

Ornithophobe said...

You are exactly right- if we understand an item's use, then we don't call it a ritual artifact. I've come to a point where, when I encounter the word "ritual" I mentally substitute "We don't know what this was used for" in its place.

Something funny happened to me last year. I was in a store with my son, who is 14. They had one of those long conveyor belts in the back, the sort we used to use when I was a kid for returning cartons of glass soft drink bottles. It wasn't in use, rather, it was piled up with display items- but it caught his eye and he asked me what it was. I thought a moment, then asked him to try to figure it out. He speculated for a bit- I forget what he came up with, but he was way wrong. When I explained the whole bottle return system, he was surprised. In his lifetime, returnable bottles don't exist here, he had no frame of reference for a system that was, quite recently, completely ubiquitous. Alex has never seen a 16 ounce glass coke bottle. So he had no conception of a world where they go back to the store for a cash refund. A single system that was once a large part of our grocery economy has disappeared, leaving little trace; what was normal and perfectly sensible, with the right frame of reference, was unimaginable without it.

It got me thinking about what sort of social and economic systems might have vanished over the course of human experience. The remnants of such might be hard to identify, without modern corollaries to examine.

Geoff Carter said...

I like the approach; teaching children, and people, how to think is vital. Archaeology, like many disciplines is a way of thinking about the evidence.

Modern people experience more radical change in culture. Things usually changed more slowly in the past, certainly the agricultural routines of the common folk were inherently fairly fixed. However, most 'culture' leaves archaeological remains.