22 February, 2010

Angst, archaeology, and academics

Apologies for the recent break in transmission, but, as this article will hopefully explain, working in isolation for a long period on one topic can take its toll on your well-being. The previous articles form something of a sequence, and we have reached an important juncture, and the cause of much of my stress. But the time has now come to clear the decks of the emotional debris of a difficult journey, re-batten the hatches, get up to ramming speed, and set the controls for the heart of one the most central issues in British Prehistory.
In short, why Woodhenge, and similar structures, were buildings and how they worked.
The idea that previous generations grew trees and placed them in the ground to create a built environment does not, on the face of it, sound like a controversial proposition.
Unhappily, this is probably no longer the majority view. Indeed, a significant number of senior academics have built their careers, at least in part, on saying the exact opposite.

Places like Woodhenge are known as ‘timber circles’, some wooden form of the stone circles evident in the Neolithic; special spaces with freestanding posts, where people did ’rituals’.
However, the problem goes much deeper. A lot of recent research, and peer-reviewed print, has gone into the nature of these rituals, and what they tell us about wider society, their beliefs and cosmology. There is the crucial flaw in this scholarship, however erudite and sincere: If postholes are building foundations, then much of this research becomes irrelevant.
Archaeology Outside in
Given the implications of my work, it is perhaps appropriate that this blow to the credibility of the current vision of these monuments should come from outside.
However, this is not a situation of my choosing. I have spent 20 years researching postholes, the commonest features found on prehistoric archaeological sites in Northern Europe. Despite their abundance, as far as I am aware, I am the only person in the world who studies postholes, and such a peerless and invidious position is actually quite distressing.
Having made some significant breakthroughs, I started a PhD, taking years of research and every penny I had, and more, to Newcastle University. What happened next is still the subject of an official complaint, so I can’t comment further on the abject mediocrity of that experience.
It would be fair to say I was unable to find common ground with their academic culture. It is pointless telling someone “Woodhenge is a building” if they do not understand the term ‘building’. Theoretical Structural Archaeology is meant to be rational approach to postholes, but seemed in conflict with their system of analysis based on belief, ritual, and cosmologies.
For those inside the peer-reviewed sector to be arguing for an explanation based on belief and ritual, against one based on a rational analysis, was an interesting irony, but in some parts of archaeology reason has become a heresy. If you discover the world was not created in 4004bc, there is no point telling the local bishop.
 As a professional archaeologist, it is my job to explain what I find, not mystify it, especially to those stakeholders who pay for excavations. Unfortunately platitudes about ritual won’t cover a lack of genuine understanding forever.
Postholes, and the buildings they represent, are our architectural heritage, and relate to our traditional craft and industry. Comfortable, creditable, functional, structurally- literate architecture is part our culture and what makes living in this part of the world (England) possible, and tolerable.

The more I find out about prehistoric building, and the more significant my discoveries, the further it takes me from the rest of archaeology. For several years, I have known how certain important structures were roofed. Not having colleagues with whom to discuss these far-reaching ideas, or even ready access to the academic data, is not an easy position to find oneself in.
Having exhausted my funds on a futile attempt to engage with a university, I decided to cut out the middleman and place some of my work on the Internet, where it is available free, in most major languages, 24 hours a day, and in colour. Against all the usual conventions, I have tried to write it so non-specialists can understand it.
It has been very stressful, and has made me very poor, but more significantly, ill, depressed, frustrated, and angry. This is all very distressing and permeates beyond myself to affect my family and friends. I am sure I don’t have to draw you a picture.
This process has been made so hard and unnecessary difficult, I really needed to get things off my chest, to dump these toxic assets, and move on with a calm and rational explanation of some very important archaeology.
Newcastle University broke my heart, but Google saved my life and Theoretical Structural Archaeology. I owe a huge dept of gratitude to my readers, correspondents, and fellow bloggers who have supported this enterprise, especially Martha Murphy.
Thank you one and all.

Coming soon – Woodhenge the Building
In some strange, imagined, and virtual game of academic poker, a player sitting unnoticed, and uninvited at the table is about to show his hand. Just who has the full house and who is bluffing on a pair of picture cards?

There is one advantage to being an outsider, you're not obliged to take it seriously. If you did, it would be damaging.
I have become so frustrated by battling the primitive and ‘ritual’ vision of the past, that I am unable to control my desire to satirise, scorn, and poke fun at it; if only it was not so easy! Once you understand the nature of a building like Woodhenge, it puts other commentaries on the subject into a different perspective, and some seem madder than a box of frogs!
I know sarcasm is the lowest form wit, but cliché is the lowest expression of intelligence, so once more, for the road, I am going to indulge in little more hyperbole, downright wickedness, and mock the past.
Hopefully this will get it out of my system, I will feel better, and can move on with my work, and finish the Woodhenge analysis, and then all of this nonsense will be academic.

Imagined Alternative Realities.
Dr Charlie Thunderbird-Jones is classical scholar from the University of Tyneside, who recently took a look at evidence of PreRoman buildings, and came to the startling conclusion that Celtic culture was at least in part African.
This extract is from his paper; The Romans; rebuilding the world their own image, was given to conference Conscious and Spatial Relationships in Dark Places hosted by Gary Barking-Overrun at the University of Tyneside in 2005.
. . .. While it is still unproven that Celtic culture derives from Africa, it is clear their simple huts were influenced by African designs, if not actually built by Africans, or perhaps African slaves. However, there can be little doubt that architecture, houses, and buildings as we understand them today, are part of the great legacy we owe to Roman civilisation.
The arrival of the Romans did much to alleviate the appalling living conditions of the native population. For several thousand years they had huddled round the fire in their dark, leaking, single roomed huts. The boredom of life was only broken by complex rituals, where each individual would constantly shift his position around the fire, dependent on age, sex, social status, and the position of the sun. Even death was no escape, and bits of ones body would continue to make these symbolic journeys among the living.
The native Neolithic cultures had never really recovered from the shock of the Bronze Age, and metal things were still treated as objects of veneration and social reproduction; still stunned by the shininess, they mainly waved them at the sky and threw them into any water they came across. As a result, woodworking consisted mainly in making pointed stakes to be put in the ground. However, this was a very important practice, and hundreds of posts were used to create and designate special ritual zones or ‘timber circles’. While these spaces were sometimes utilised by the dead, most were used by generations of living people for seasonal feasts, rituals, and other open-air social activities. As a result, the natives had a reputation for being a very hardy, but short-lived and miserable people, overly inclined to grumble about the weather.
Perhaps one the greatest impacts of Roman technology, was the revelation that if a thatched roof was placed across the posts around which people traditionally gathered, you could meet, greet, and eat with people without worrying about the weather. This opened up a whole new world of indoor social activities, and the sort of society we know today began to take shape.
The Irish, never benefiting from Roman civilisation, even revived the use of ritual timber circles in the Late Iron Age, when the example at Navan Fort is thought to have been sung into existence by a druid.
Central to the architectural revolution was ‘the stairs’. This brilliant innovation opened up vast amounts of previously unused roof space, introducing the revolutionary idea of people living upstairs, and keeping the animals downstairs. Traditionally, any activities involving the use of light, such as looking at things, could only be done outside, but the Romans introduction of 'the window' saw the development of a new range of indoor activities and crafts, and even heralded a significant improvement in the quality of cooking and food.
So in a deeper sense, just as the Roman introduction of roads freed the native carts and wagons to leave their farms and travel to other places, so the introduction of architecture by Roman administrators liberated the population from the tyranny of superstition and ritual behaviour. In this way our primitive ancestors were saved from a life of darkness by the transformative power of Roman architectural innovation, introducing them to a pattern of domestic and social life which is still evident today. . . .
The Romans; rebuilding the world their own image,
Dr C Thunderbird-Jones (2005):  University of Tyneside


Timothy Reid said...

You tell em Geoff!

It used to be you could take the screaming kids out to the pasture distract them with a horse and you could get a couple of hours of peace. Of course horses are hard to come by these days so instead we give praise to the "upstairs revolution".

I suspect that "woodhenge was probably just another place to stand in line while living out ones dull dreary lives.

Silly me I thought all culture was derived from Africa? I gots to get up on my learnin!

I guess the secret to happiness is not letting them know you are an intellectual or that you have any money.

Take care. :)

Geoff Carter said...

Thanks Tim,
I am glad you enjoyed the Archaeo-slapstick.

Martha Murphy said...

Hail, Geoff!

I try not to comment much on archaeology, but as a person with a degree in English literature, I will say that you've done Jonathan Swift proud!

Maybe you've chosen the wrong calling!

Love it!


Geoff Carter said...

Thanks Martha,
I would write articles in rhyming couplets, or do it as a rap, if I thought it would make this archaeology better understood.

This is fun to do, and there is a lot more where that comes from; as you might imagine, the University of Tyneside is full of strange and interesting people publishing on a variety of subjects.

It is much harder to make the technical stuff interesting and clear.

luckylibbet said...

I once wanted to be an archaeologist and abandoned the idea when I saw the academic world for what it is - pompous, self absorbed, infatuated with ridiculous and nonsensical ideas.

Thanks for a breath of fresh air. Your articles are at once sensible and accessible to the layman.

Geoff Carter said...

Thank you so much, I rest my case.

Don’t give up on archaeology, it is still a very interesting thing to ‘do’, and in most places you can find the opportunity to join in some way. It is a worthwhile experience, and worth a try, even if you have to pay.
You can go to interesting places, meet interesting people and get dirty.

Odin's Raven said...

Were all the holes just for posts? Could they have been actual trees? Might ritual groves have been combined with managed woodland?

Geoff Carter said...

Hi, tree holes, are much bigger than postholes, root systems are usually at least as extensive as the trees canopy. It is used to explain large irregular features, that might be created if a tree falls over.
As it is only practical to plant small young trees any holes from planting tree would not have to be large. Hedges tend to require little digging to plant.
However, archaeologists don't tend to look for trees, or think about their presence when interpreting archaeology.
'Sacred Groves' would be difficult to detect archaeologically.

Unknown said...

Dear Geoff

I'm really interested to see how you approach the Woodhenge problem. Much current thought seems to be due to Mike Parker-Pearson's views (nicely mocked, by the way. I almost believed they were real) and Mike Pitt's very careful work on the Sanctuary. I have a post on this very subject if you're interested.


Ned Pegler

PS Supervisors eh?

Geoff Carter said...

Hi Ned, good to hear from you, glad you enjoyed my little bit of fun.

I will get round to the Sanctuary, but I am going to start with Woodhenge, and this will take two articles to cover!

It is important to work one site at a time. In my mind this was serious architecture, and each is a different, with it's own structural history.

However, I am confident that when I demonstrate how Woodhenge worked as building, any preconception about primitive/ simplistic architecture will be blown away.

Nice site BTW, I will put up a link.

Anonymous said...

"I once wanted to be an archaeologist and abandoned the idea when I saw the academic world for what it is - pompous, self absorbed, infatuated with ridiculous and nonsensical ideas."

It has its downsides too.

Geoff Carter said...

. . . . those who can teach; it pays about twice as much, and you don't have to work outside . .

Odin's Raven said...

Where were the woods from which they got all this timber? Presumably they were owned and protected and managed. Maybe they left some sort of blank on the map of contemporary settlement, only later turned into farms. Might the logging tracks for the carts taking the timber have become important parts of later road systems and property boundaries? Were the people agricultural or pastoral?

Geoff Carter said...

Wild wood, is the predominant natural vegetation, but some degree of management is required to make woodland productive. Traditionally, our agriculture has been a mix of plant and animal husbandry, and this seems to be the pattern established in the Neolithic.

I have always assumed that each agricultural unit, be it farm or estate, would have an area of managed woodland, producing the materials and fuel required locally. It is not high tec, but does require continuity of purpose.

Not all land is suitable for farming, but most will grow trees of some kind.
Archaeologically woodland is fairly invisible,it can be detected through pollen analysis, and can perhaps can be inferred from gaps in agricultural usage. There is no reason why woods might not be enclosed.

Even medieval woodland is not the subject a lot of scholarship, but I would recommend Oliver Rackham's books on the subject.

Odin's Raven said...

I can't remember the title or author, but I saw a nice little book, in the form of fiction set during the time of King Stephen, about an ex-soldier who supposedly worked as a forester near Southampton, and then helped build a windmill near Lincoln on his way back to Yorkshire. It was interesting about medieval engineering and forest management, and I suppose that what is known about medieval usage might largely apply to the more distant past.

About circles of posts, I can't see why people would want them. These people weren't crazy 'modern artists'wasting time and materials, and their structures must have had some practical or religious purpose.If they were single posts, maybe they were to crucify or torture prisoners and commemmorate victories. Might they have been frameworks for labyrinths, with the walls filled in with something? Perhaps whitewashed Tudor style wattle and daub. How about them being the supports for layers of benches around a sports stadium or fighting arena?

Geoff Carter said...

Concentric rings of posts like Woodhenge are not mystery, if you understand them. They are big, and probably beautiful, buildings.

The next two articles will explain this in detail.

For the poor people who worked on the land and in the woods, life in the Medieval period probably little different from that of their ancestors.