28 April, 2021

Reversing Engineering Oxen

One Sunday, in hole under a road in Colchester, a lad on community service cautiously removed the gravelled surface of a Roman Street, to reveal a layer of yellow sand.  With great care he removed the sand to reveal a darker layer of mud with wheel ruts and the footprint of an ox. Presumably, the ox was pulling the cart from which the sand was shovelled as the first stage of surfacing the street, thereby preserving its own imprint in mud.

It is probably my favourite piece of archaeology, somehow enhanced by the circumstances. It was the earliest Roman street from the Legionary fortress which we had accessed through a hole dug through the existing road. Normally covered with a steel plate and available only when the road was closed for us on Sundays. 
This confirmation of the roman use of oxen pulling carts or wagons, [two and four wheels respectively], is not a surprise.  Scholars might ask who paid for them, who owned them, and who was responsible for maintaining the streets.  This would initiate a search of pertinent Roman historical material and finds.

However, archaeologists spend a lot of time looking at building foundations, [often unconsciously], and the presence of oxen has implications for the built environments, in particularly their use in agriculture.

Farm buildings basics
Using Oxen as a power source, principally to pull ploughs and wheeled transport, is a key component of traditional agriculture in Eurasia.  The animal's capacity for work of  effects the size of fields and farms in general, as well as the geography of the transport network more widely.  Setting aside the domestic requirements of farmers and farm workers, oxen themselves, like most components of a mixed farm require specialist buildings.
As agriculture spread North and West during the Neolithic, one cultural response to the wetter, colder and shorter growing seasons, was development of built environments.  Temperate climates made it difficult to reliably perform basic processes like drying, threshing, and winnowing crops in the open air, so specialist buildings were required.  It is this interaction of agricultural technology and practice with differing local environments and local resources, that makes "ethnography" largely irrelevant in understanding archaeology.
Farms are the commonest and most fundamental built environments; their buildings are not an optional extras or a product of later discoveries, but are the essential prerequisite for most of the culture from the Neolithic onwards.  For every Prehistoric "monument" there must be multiple farms, although this is not reflected in the literature or understanding.

  Basic Farm Buildings
  • A farm is an engineered environment of fields, tracks, buildings, water supply and other resources.  
  • The scale of farm buildings  reflects the productive potential of the agricultural unit they service. 
  • The range of building types reflects the productive potential of the agricultural unit it services.
  • Spaces may retain very specific functions, others may be multi-functional, their use varying with the season.
  • Farms are working spaces, and their design is the product on generations of ergonomic observations and best practice. 
  • Agricultural built environments closely reflect the nature of local traditions and practice.
Barns [UK]
Although the word is widely misapplied, strictly speaking a “Barn” is a building used for processing cereals.   
The two main processes being threshing, removing the grain heads from the stalks [straw], and winnowing separating the grain from chaff.  In it’s traditional form it has a central working space with bays on either side, one for unprocessed cereal and the other for the resultant straw.  The work space is often lofty reflecting the use of flails to thresh grain.  It also would have doors at both ends so that wind draught could be used to separate  [winnow] the lighter chaff from the grain.  The doors should be wide enough to facilitate access by wheeled transport.

Cereals are the staple carbohydrate for Humans and supplement the diets of domesticated animals.  Grain may require additional drying to prevent sprouting or rotting during storage.  Grains are traditionally stored in granaries, buildings characterised by raised floors and good ventilation.  The local tradition [N England] is to site granaries over the cart shed.
Cart Shed
Wooden carts [2 wheels] and waggons [4 wheels] require special buildings  to preserve them when not in use.  They are associated with a variety of harness and other tackle made from leather and other materials that equally need protection from the elements.  More generally, farms have a Varity of of specialist tools and equipment that will require storage space in building preferably situated close to where they will be used.

Ox / Cow House
Working oxen need a building to house them with provision for water, feed and bedding.  Such buildings usually low ceiling sometimes with slightly wider door.
The oxen are houses in individual stalls, or in exceptional circumstances loose boxes, which are provided with permanent troughs and mangers.  The stalls have bedding of straw to absorb urine and facies, which has to be "mucked out" regularly which in turn requires a muck heap or midden where such organic material is stored.

Other Oxen Engineering Issues
If you use wagons, their width and turning circle has to be reflected in the ergonomics of the working spaces and wider infrastructure.
If used to pull wagons on metalled roads, the Oxen may require shoeing.  Unlike horses, oxen cannot stand on 3 legs, thus, require to be fully supported and restrained while being shod, requiring an engineering solution with foundations, and therefore archaeology.
There is a tenancy in archaeological practice to see excavation data in terms of what has been fund before, introducing both circularity and selection bias.  Thus, thinking about the archaeology of built environments has not extended beyond the simplistic and fundamentally racist tropes about primitive huts for primitive peoples derived from the sort of ideas about cultural evolution that drove national socialism.  Thus, the engineering required to shoe an ox, or its turning circle is seldom considered by an academic culture steeped in a colonial view of our primitive ancestors and their beliefs.

As Theoretical Structural Archaeology is about understanding archaeological buildings and structures I was naturally intrigued by recent set of Roman structures uncovered near Scarborough.   My initial reaction, [which invariably proves to be wrong], was it was a signal tower, however, having seen more detailed footage, I would postulate a different interpretation.

The well built structure could be a specialist barn, with an animal powered threshing floor [or mill], something similar to buildings locally known as a gin gang.  The addition of floored granary at the rear of the building completes picture. 
In this particular case, I would expect a central archaeological feature representing the spindle of the system in the centre of a threshing or milling area.  In addition, I might just expect wooden floors or hard flooring in the ancillary crop storage buildings, but apart from basic render, I would not expect wall plaster, tesserae, or other high status domestic fixtures and fittings.