20 January, 2015

The Northern Frontier; lilies, Latin, and illiteracy

Some readers, new to archaeology, particularly students like those on MOOC courses, discover that the evidence based arguments about Roman Military archaeology found on this blog , are not well received by their tutors.  It is important to understand that many academics can only understand archaeology when it is written down, having no experience of real archaeological interpretation. As a result, the text of an archaeological report, rather than the evidence can become an article of faith, and ideas become embedded at a fundamental level, immovable objects, that actual serve to inhibit understand in the subject.
Ideas developed around the evidence for a primary timber phase of Hadrian's Wall, based on the reevaluating archaeological evidence from an engineering point of view, have produced the only cohesive, coherent, and consistent account of the early phases of the Wall. [here]  However, while this blog may give the readers the arguments to deconstruct existing ideas, that is not the name of the game.
Disappointingly, for students, it is a game, a bit like Chess, only more expensive, in that the board and its pieces are fixed, you may not bring in pieces from other games or remove any existing pieces; the object is to remove the pieces from the box and arrange them in the correct order, going beyond this and start making moves is to lose.
It is not just using the evidence, but arguments about the engineering of timber structures is also going to get a chilly reaction; what cuts ice in Roman studies is Latin.
Canis Latinicus
Probably, as a result of Christianity, Latin has been central to a traditional education, with Roman texts and inscriptions, despite their scarcity, having a dominate influence on our understanding of our early history, into which archaeology has often had to be fitted.   Any academic study is accretion of ideas, and the Wall got off to bad start when the Venerable Bede christened The Vallum, so let’s be clear;
Vallum; noun; a rampart; a wall, as in a fortification; from vallus (“stake, palisade, point”). [2]
The Timber Wall phase was a vallum, but thanks to Bede's hijacking of the word, I can’t use the word in its proper context, and as politicians know, what things are called does matter, it can affect the whole way we conceive of the past. Thus, while most authorities are agreed that it is not defensive in nature, they have retained the idea of a boundary, however irrational, and although it has all the characteristics of a cutting for a road bed, this is a perceptual shift too far.
One thing sources like the writings of Caesar make clear, the Roman Army was very rational, and it is the lesson of history that warfare is successfully prosecuted through intelligent actions.  However, many of the ideas and interpretations put forward to explain archaeology like The Vallum imply that the Romans were behaving irrationally, with complete disregard for the basics of engineering or military strategy.  Similarly, we must be prepared to accept that their enemies were similarly dysfunctional and inept in the practice of warfare
This is particularly true of the explanations put forward to explain the arrays double postholes dug by the roman army, variously described as Lilia, at Rough Castle  and  cippi or "defensive pits" found on the berm behind the ditch of both the Antonine and Hadrian's walls. [3]  
As I have discussed in some detail previously, [here], in his account of the siege of Alesia, Caesar describes additional obstacles constructed by his troops beyond his main ramparts and ditches [Caes. Gal.7.73],[4] as follows.
Cippi is term used to describe an entanglement formed by embedding branches or logs with limbs still attached in a series of 5 foot deep trenches.[5]
A Lilia was a concealed tapering circular hole, about the size of man’s foot, in which a sharpened stake firmly embedded; [Shaped like a lily flower].
Neither of these terms matches in any way the nature of archaeological features to which they have been ascribed.  
From the context, lilia and cippi are clearly soldiers’ slang, a bit of black humour Caesar is sharing with his readers, and their significance to the narrative is that helped break up a Gaulish night attack discussed in a subsequent chapter, [Caes. Gal. 7.82].
However, because they were central to way the Roman army campaigned, there are dozens of references to ramparts and other timber structures in Caesar’s writings which provide a perfectly rational explanation of such features.  In addition, Trajan’s column provides more contemporary illustrations of the nature timber structures built by his troops during the Dacian Wars (101–102, 105–106). [illustrated; those with grey borders have enhanced colouring of relevant detail]
Rough Archaeology - lilia
The large rectangular pits at Rough Castle [left], commonly referred to as Lilia, are the wrong size and shape - unless the enemy was wearing huge oversized clown shoes!
I have already suggested on the basis of reverse engineering that these postholes can be modelled as a form of timber strongpoint or redoubt. [here]   Such as structure could have a solid timber base becoming progressively hollower towards the top; entry could be by a narrow passages sloping passages.  
It could be argued on the basis of comparison with the watchtowers, which would be based on suitable timber, that 40-50 feet is not unreasonable as a starting point for the height of such a structure, but the army excelled at building tall structures.
This type of assembly would form a good basis for improvising structures as required.
As with the modelling of the timber wall, the starting point is the primary evidence, and the precise position of posts represented by the features recorded in plan and section. It is the aim of this approach that the arguments embodied in model should be strong enough in their own right to make a case, without reference to other material. This ensures that new ideas can emerge about the engineering of ancient structures, allowing for interpretation rather than simple comparison, in contrast to text based archaeological research. 
In earlier periods supporting or corroborative evidence is not available, but written sources and illustrations are available in the Roman period, which although distinct and secondary to the archaeology, do help support the structural principles embodied in the model.
A watchtower and other structures on the frontier, part of the first scene at the base of Trajan's Column 
It is clear from the writings of Caesar that the Romans built fortifications in the field which are distinct from camps. 
The word that is used in the text is; 
castellum: a castle, fort, citadel, fortress, stronghold. [6]
It occurs in a variety of different situations, including as a description of native positions, [Caes. Gal. 2.28/29/32; 3.1],  and translators use a variety of english words depending on the context.
At the beginning of the Gallic wars Caesar builds an 18 mile, 16 foot tall rampart with a ditch to prevent the Helvetii invading the territory of Sequani.
When that work was finished, he distributes garrisons, and closely fortifies redoubts, in order that he may the more easily intercept them, if they should attempt to cross over against his will.
[Caes. Gal. 1.8]
An interesting reference comes in Book II where he digs ditches on the flanks of his army with “forts” to help prevent his army being outflanked. 
….on either side of that hill he drew a cross trench of about four hundred paces, and at the extremities of that trench built forts, and placed there his military engines…
[Caes. Gal.2.8]
This suggests something district from a typical fort in the sense of fortified camp, used as a base for artillery, perhaps the same is true of the for the “fort” commanded by Titurius built to guard a bridge, [Caes. Gal.2.9]. Another clear distinction comes during the siege of Alesia.
The circuit of that fortification, which was commenced by the Romans, comprised eleven miles. The camp was pitched in a strong position, and twenty-three redoubts were raised in it, in which sentinels were placed by day, lest any sally should be made suddenly; and by night the same were occupied by watches and strong guards. 
[Caes. Gal.7.69], 
These "redoubts" are distinct from camps and the main fortifications, but are clearly capable of housing significant numbers of troops, as is clear from their role during the climatic battles to break the siege.
But Marcus Antonius, and Caius Trebonius, the lieutenants, to whom the defense of these parts had been allotted, draughted troops from the redoubts which were more remote, and sent them to aid our troops, in whatever direction they understood that they were hard pressed.
Caes. Gal.7.81]
After renewing the action, and repulsing the enemy, he marches in the direction in which he had sent Labienus, drafts four cohorts from the nearest redoubt, and orders part of the cavalry to follow him,
[Caes. Gal.7.87] 
Later in the campaign in Gaul during initial siege of Uxellodunum by Caninius, he distributes his troops in strong points, having insufficient forces to completely surround the town. 
Sometimes also attacks were made on our little forts by sallies at night. For this reason Caninius deferred drawing his works round the whole town, lest he should be unable to protect them when completed, or by disposing his garrisons in several places, should make them too weak.
[Caes. Gal. 8.34]
Caninius instantly with the ready-armed cohorts from the nearest turrets made an attack on the convoy at the break of day
[Caes. Gal. 8.35]
As at Alesia, we see numbers of troops can be housed in these particular installations which seem to be distinct from our traditional view of Roman camps and forts. Although the basic construction method may have been similar, to that used to build ramparts.

Further linguistic pitfalls
Everywhere archaeologists have looked in recent years, lines of double postholes have been found behind the ditches on both the  Hadrianic and the Antonine frontier, from which is possible to reverse engineer a timber rampart.   I have argued that these features represent a core of posts around which layers of horizontal timbers were knitted.  While it is not a primary consideration, as this is deductive reasoning, it is also entirely consistent with other sources of information about military architecture. 
The key feature of these types of structure is the use of double post pits; it might be assumed this is the simplest and quickest method of construction for soldiers working in small teams, whose principle tool was a similar to a mattock [lingo / dolabra].
I have already drawn attention to the regular layout of these features, although, notwithstanding they have been robbed, the variation in size suggests that they were also dug to suit individual pieces of timber.
In Vitruvius we find a description of how to build a Ballista; the key information is given as proportions; scale is a matter of circumstances.[7]   It has certainly been a working hypothesis that the engineering of this type of structure would be based around a measured systems or modules.
While it would be useful for understand this system, the existing sample represents a rather small disparate set of data. In addition, since most of the structure is invisible to archaeology, we cannot be sure of the significance of what can measure. 
The only consistency is in having three rows; although it might perceive that the outer lines of pits should be paralleled with the inner one offset, this does not apply at Shields Road. This variation is probably not a concern, since we have a tiny sample of a very large structure built by many hands, although unlike the stone Wall, I would suggest that this was completed in one season, possibly AD 119.[8]
Shields road is the largest sample, but only the western bit is regular the next section is very different; in the space of 11 outer pits there are 18 along the middle. I think it likely that other postholes visible on the photographs may also be part of structure.
At Buddle St, I am still uncertain if there are any double posts in this section, and this requires further work with the achieve.  It is a unique situation; it is my understanding that there was already a road in existence running north from the river were presumable there was a dock, and perhaps even some form of ferry.  This section was attached to a gatehouse structure, blocking the road, to the west of the road there is few metres of more conventional looking postholes.  
The recently published section at Melbourne Street [9] is very similar to Garnhall on the Antonine Wall [10], in that it is formed by three parallel rows.  This section is  distorted; however, they appear to have dug into a stream bed which has been heavily piled in modern times.   
Thus, it is appears that while these structures have been laid out with some degree of precision, the variation and sample size makes this merely an interesting observation.

You pays your money.... 
Theoretical structural archaeology was developed as a methodology to study timber structures, predominantly those represented by postholes, since this is usually all that remains of the built environment.  It is based on the idea that structures are rational, the product of mechanics, and can be understood on this level via a process of reverse engineering by model building.  It is not derived from consideration of the existing narrative, but from an investigation of the primary evidence.  While this approach was intended to deal with the problems of Prehistoric evidence, it works just as well, if not better, with Roman material, where we understand the context and technical culture in greater depth.  
The writings of Caesar are a fabulous survival which I have used them extensively to contextualise the archaeological evidence; there are over 40 passages relating to military engineering using timber for fortifications.  However, for reasons that are not entirely clear, one passage [5] has dominated thinking about this group of features, and become a prodigious source of bunkum, but more significantly, has hobbled the study of the Wall.
While written language is important, there is another sort of literacy, that professionals often require, visual literacy, usually a specialised sort, like being able to read drawings, diagrams, or x-rays.  A lack of appropriate visual literacy among academics and teacher results in dependence on texts, and research that merely rehashes exiting literature.  What is damaging for Archaeology as a professional, is that teachers, since they cannot see and hence think like an archaeologist, can only reproduce an academic reading skill set in their students.   
It is also disappointing to discover that archaeologists tend to find what they are looking for, but in reality, that is often why they are digging. Honourable mention must go to the Turf wall is this context, which in the previous article I demonstrated is consistent with it being a timber rampart, the only evidence of turf is in the name. [here]    
Interpretations like the Rough Castle “Lilia”, “cipi”, and even the “Turf” Wall, demonstrates that “peer review” engenders both a suspension of disbelief and critical thinking that can turn archaeology into self-referential faith based study. Specialised areas of study become can easily become debased and politicised when the existing narrative becomes compromised by unfounded but “peer-reviewed” ideas which have to be fitted in.
A watchtower and other structures on the frontier, part of the first scene at the base of Trajan's Column
The use of CAD modelling further exacerbates these problems, in that, it cannot be easily peer reviewed, it represents deductive reasoning which falls outside the scope of existing scholarship, and challenges the primacy of written word.
The existing system can happily ignore evidence that does not suit its purpose, but problems arise when people, new to archaeology, find these ideas and understand them, only to find out they ought to be “reading more widely”.
While students may be in pursuit of understanding, institutions are in pursuit of fees, garnered for the minimum of effort; knowledge is not understanding, it is just another commodity; do not tamper with the packaging, it will invalidate your guarantee;  caveat emptor.

Sources and further reading.


[1] http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/vallum   [from 1913 edition of Webster’s Dictionary],
[2] Bidwell, P T, 2005 'The system of obstacles on Hadrian's Wall; their extent, date and purpose', Arbeia J, 8, 53-76. http://www.arbeiasociety.org.uk/journal.htm
Grey literature: Shields Road, Newcastle, Phase 2b, archaeological excavation. TWM archaeology 10/2006
Bidwell, Paul T.; Watson, Moira. 1989 'A Trial Excavation on Hadrian's Wall at Buddle Street, Wallsend'. Archaeologia Aeliana, 5th ser., 17 (1989), 21-28.
T. Frain, J. McKelvey & P. Bidwell 2005 Excavations and watching brief along the berm of Hadrian’s Wall at Throckley, Newcastle upon Tyne, in 2001-2002. Arbeia J, 8 
Grey literature; Throckley, Newcastle upon Tyne, archaeological excavation and watching brief. TWM Archaeology 12/2003
Platell, A. C.:  Excavations on Hadrian's Wall at Melbourne Street, Newcastle upon Tyne. 5th Series, vol 41, 185–206
Woolliscroft, D.J., Excavations at Garnhall on the line of the Antonine Wall., Proc Soc Antiq Scot 138 (2008), 129–176
http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-352-1/dissemination/pdf/vol_138/138_129_176.pdf
[3] Caius Julius Caesar "De Bello Gallico" and Other Commentaries English translation by W. A. MacDevitt, introduction by Thomas De Quincey (1915) http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/10657
And
http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/collection?collection=Perseus%3Acorpus%3Aperseus%2Cwork%2CCaesar%2C%20Gallic%20War
[4] Cip´pus n. 1. A small, low pillar,square or round, commonly having an inscription, used by the ancients for various purposes, as for indicating the distances of places, for a landmark, for sepulchral inscriptions, etc. Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, published 1913 by C. & G. Merriam Co
 [5] It was necessary, at one and the same time, to procure timber [for the rampart], lay in supplies of corn, and raise also extensive fortifications, and the available troops were in consequence of this reduced in number, since they used to advance to some distance from the camp, and sometimes the Gauls endeavoured to attack our works, and to make a sally from the town by several gates and in great force. Caesar thought that further additions should be made to these works, in order that the fortifications might be defensible by a small number of soldiers. Having, therefore, cut down the trunks of trees or very thick branches, and having stripped their tops of the bark, and sharpened them into a point, he drew a continued trench everywhere five feet deep. These stakes being sunk into this trench, and fastened firmly at the bottom, to prevent the possibility of their being torn up, had their branches only projecting from the ground. There were five rows in connection with, and intersecting each other; and whoever entered within them were likely to impale themselves on very sharp stakes. The soldiers called these "cippi." Before these, which were arranged in oblique rows in the form of a quincunx, pits three feet deep were dug, which gradually diminished in depth to the bottom. In these pits tapering stakes, of the thickness of a man's thigh; sharpened at the top and hardened in the fire, were sunk in such a manner as to project from the ground not more than four inches; at the same time for the purpose of giving them strength and stability, they were each filled with trampled clay to the height of one foot from the bottom: the rest of the pit was covered over with osiers and twigs, to conceal the deceit. Eight rows of this kind were dug, and were three feet distant from each other. They called this a lily from its resemblance to that flower. Stakes a foot long, with iron hooks attached to them, were entirely sunk in the ground before these, and were planted in every place at small intervals; these they called spurs.
Caius Julius Caesar "De Bello Gallico" 7. 73
[6 ]Lewis, Charlton, T. An Elementary Latin Dictionary. New York, Cincinnati, and Chicago. American Book Company. 1890.
[7] Marcus Vitruvius Pollio: de Architectura, Book X .10, 11
[8] Graafstal, Erik P.: 2012,   Hadrian's haste: a priority programme for the Wall. Archaeologia Aeliana, 5th Series, vol 41, 123–84
[9] Platell, A. C.:  Excavations on Hadrian's Wall at Melbourne Street, Newcastle upon Tyne. 5th Series, vol 41, 185–206
[10] Woolliscroft, D.J., Excavations at Garnhall on the line of the Antonine Wall., Proc Soc Antiq Scot 138 (2008), 129–176

28 December, 2014

De-turfing Hadrian’s Wall

I have argued the postholes found on the berm of Hadrian’s Wall are the remains of the a timber rampart, which together with the Turf Wall, formed the primary rampart and ditch phase of the frontier.[here] Recent work by Eric Graafstal also suggests the turf wall was the very first part of Hadrian’s Wall, and would date this phase to 119 AD, although the author believes that the Turf Wall was built in isolation against the tribes in SW Scotland [1].  Unfortunately, this leaves the Turf Wall dangling, awaiting the eventual arrival of the Stone Wall in centre of the country, and also presupposes the Northerners lacked the tactical ability to outflank the Romans by simply riding round it, rendering it useless.  But that’s not the only problem with a Wall made of turf; is such a thing likely, practical, and is there any real evidence to support it?

05 November, 2014

Did the Scots Burn Roman London?

At some point in the mid 120’s much of London Burnt  to the ground, around the same time construction of Hadrian’s Wall was apparently abandoned, could these events be connected - just how bad crisis in Roman Britain?
“... under the rule of your grandfather Hadrian what a number of soldiers were killed by the Jews, what a number by the Britons”
Marcus Cornelius Fronto, letter to Marcus Aurelius, AD162 

26 October, 2014

Posthole Archaeology; Function, Form and Fighting

In the previous post I posed the question what buildings does a moderately complex hierarchical agricultural society require, looking at aspects of agricultural buildings; this time I am looking at moderately complex hierarchical society, or at least that end of hierarchy that tends to represented in archaeology.
It is fashionable, and perhaps progressive, to talk of higher status individuals or elites, to avoid cultural bias inherent such terms as aristocracy.   However, I use the term in its original cultural context precisely to reference that bias, or understanding, and also is to imply a degree of continuity between Prehistory and History.
I am going to look particularly at the Late Iron Age fort at Orsett, Essex, [1] now lost to the latest incarnation of the junction it guarded 2000 years ago. [below].  It typifies all the problems of interpretation associated with archaeology that has been ploughed. It was clearly a fortification at some stage, and only the aristocracy, have the resources, interest and right to build such things. Systematic and sustained fighting, takes considerable resources, training and expensive kit. It was after all, what maintained them at the top of the divinely sanctioned heap, and some might argue it was their raison d’etre.

26 September, 2014

Posthole archaeology; function, form and farming


By the Bronze Age in British Isles, and certainly in terms of the proto-historic Late Iron Age, we have what historians might call petty kings and aristocracy, sometimes with a more wider regional and national institutions.  Although our museums have their weapons and treasures, architecturally, we have lost sight of the petty king in his palace and the homes of the aristocracy, always such a feature of our countryside.  
But this is just the tip of an iceberg of ignorance, since we know very little of the charcoal burner in his hut, and have no real notion of cart sheds or byres; only “roundhouses”, and, thousands upon thousands of uninterpreted postholes.
It is this functional deficiency that I hope to explore in series of posts, since it represents a serious gap in our knowledge of an area fundamental to understanding any culture.  One way of broadening thinking about function is to ask the question; what buildings does a moderately complex hierarchical agricultural society require? 

13 September, 2014

Dumbing down the past.

Dumbing down through abstraction.
In two previous posts, [ 1 + 2 ] I have demonstrated that one of the central images of British Prehistory, the Wessex Roundhouse, is a construct which does not accurately represent the evidence.  It is not a discovery, or rocket science, I just read the relevant reports and looked at the plans and sections.
While I am happy to call these roundhouse constructs dumbing down, what to call the scholarship they generate presents a problem, since it represents the application of presumably perfectly acceptable theory to an imaginary data set. 
Archaeology is often at its best and most incisive when it has borrowed from other disciplines, but left to their own devices some academics have wandered off through the dewy system to delve into ideas about the relationship between people and built environments. But perhaps sometimes they just look at the pictures.
It is possible for anthropologists to study the relationship between people and their built environments; the humans can be questioned and observed, and the spaces inspected. In such a study, we might also wish consider factors of age, status, and gender, as well as more complex issues pertaining to the ownership and creation of spaces.
In anthropology, a theory, a set of ideas or a cosmology which explain the patterns of behaviour associated with particular places can be developed through the study of people and spaces. 
However, in Archaeology the people we study are dead and their spaces destroyed, or they usually are after we have finished with them....

04 September, 2014

Parish Notices; Help Nigel Hetherington of Past Preservers do the EH Wall Hike

On  19 of September Nigel Hetherington of Past Preservers, will be returning to his ancestral homelands and taking part in the English Heritage's Hadrian's Wall Hike to raise funds for much needed conservation along the famous route. Please Donate today to support Nigel and English Heritage, and share with your friends and colleagues. All of your donations and efforts are greatly appreciated, please Tweet your support to @Pastpreservers and @EnglishHeritage using the #HadriansHike hashtag and please spread the word! 

31 August, 2014

Roundhouse Psychosis

In the previous post I explained why the large Wessex style “roundhouse” as illustrated and rebuilt is a fiction which is not supported by the evidence.  To be fair to all concerned, it never was a “peer reviewed” idea, but like the artists reconstruction that decorate the front of some archaeological texts, it has a far greater impact on our collective perception of the past than any sterile rendition of the evidence. 
The problem is that Roundhouses are more than just infotainment, a bit of harmless hokum for Joe Public, they are taken seriously, not only by those who commission and build them, but also by academics, and even fellow archaeologists who are obliged to shape their reports around this simplistic construct.  While dumbing down the academic system lightens everybody’s load, it is not good for the long term mental health of the profession, who have responsibility with ‘doing’ the day to day archaeology.  We like to think what we do is meaningful, making a contribution, and that we are collectively getting somewhere, it is about the only reward you will get.
As a field archaeologist, writing up sites, I had realised that the simplistic roundhouse only made sense if ignored a lot of the actual evidence from these structures, and, the majority of the structural features from elsewhere on the site.  Furthermore, those aspects of the evidence that reflected the archaeology of other published sites [roundhouses] were deemed particularly significant, reinforcing the cycle of belief.  Thus, apart from square four post granaries, circles are generally the only acceptable shape for a prehistoric buildings; both excavation and post-excavation were approached with same expectation, and to some extent purpose, of finding roundhouses.

17 August, 2014

Debunking the Iron Age Round House

Is Prehistory is more or less bunk ?
In 1916, when archaeology was in its infancy, the industrialist Henry Ford expressed the view that History is more or less bunk, so what he would have made of Prehistory would probably have been unprintable.[1]  However, perhaps as an engineer, his concerns were elsewhere, solving the problems in the present and helping to mould the future.
In his remark, we might perceive a fundamental dichotomy of science v arts, but while this is clearly simplistic, there is a certain resonance for archaeology which sits, sometimes uncomfortably, between the two. Much of what is important, incisive and certainly less bunk in archaeology originally came from outside, from the borrowing of scientific techniques from other disciplines.  Further, in Henry Ford’s prejudice one might also perceive a divergence between practical v theoretical, or practitioners v academics; for archaeology, the latter are often from an “arts background”, and by creating the past in their own image, have divested Prehistory of its engineers, architects, builders; a prehistoric built environment fabricated almost entirely from bunk.
In the West, Archaeology is fairly new discipline, not much older than the motor car, but prehistory is not vital, and so nobody cares if you get it wrong or make it up. Unlike engineering, archaeology can be a faith based study, with objectivity, and even the evidence being secondary, what is important is belief in the narrative and its institutions.  In archaeology things can be true because people believe them, not because they are supported by the evidence. 
This is hard concept to grasp if you come from another discipline, or importantly, if you believe in the intellectual integrity of archaeology, but ideas about ancient building are a classic case in point.

04 August, 2014

On the Death of my Father

 Since April, following the death of my farther after a short illness, I have been unable to write further articles, in part because I have been unable to decide whether it was appropriate to note his passing in my blog.
He was an engineer and academic, a successful and respected member of a community I have not been allowed to join; I would not want to sully his name, or associate him with the ideas that have brought me rejection and failure.
The foregoing only serves to illustrate the problems I have with tone, and why I have struggled for months to find appropriate words and emotions.
If a jobs worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
My Dad was an engineer and a craftsman, who could fix the car and the washing machine; he also contributed to development of the modern jet engine.  He created our house from four abandoned cottages, and growing up on a partial building site with a workshop I learnt to understand woods, metals, stone, and their tools, as over the years saw a building stripped down and rebuilt. While none of this dictated that I should end up trying reverse engineering ancient structures from their foundations, it did teach me patience; archaeology, like engineering, is a largely a long term and non-repetitive working pattern.  Engineers seeks real solutions that work, but above all, he taught me he taught me to question everything I did, and ask could it be done be done better?

28 March, 2014

#BlogArch – Where is it all leading?

Over at Doug’s Archaeology Blog the final question for next month’s #blogarch SAA session on blogging is where are you going with blogging or would you it like to go? 
While having spent half my lifetime working on this methodology, I have always had an end in mind, but what I have deduced from this research was utterly unexpected. The ideal end product was always envisaged as a 3D CAD model, and the internet is now the obvious place to present one. But, to cut to the chase, the core of the issue is Peer Review; While it is technically possible to publish a 3D presentation on the internet, how do you peer review a CAD Model?
While Universities are the natural forum for research, reverse engineering structures was never going to work at a zombie department like Newcastle who had even thrown their CAD system away; and my work was branded worthless by their “cosmologist”.  [Caveat emptor]
Ironically, the subsequent decision to blog my research made it worthless, for nothing provided for free has value in terms of the academic system.  Furthermore, it had become apparent that any research that challenges the existing commercial narrative will never be supported by any of the existing stakeholders.
Originally, Iron Age Roundhouses were a key focus, but since most people imagine they have seen one, this is probably now beyond rational redemption.  However, blogging has allowed me to follow a variety of entirely different routes, and to challenge the rationality aspects of peer reviewed Roman archaeology.  The idea of peer review is that it is a firewall that keeps the nonsense out, although in reality it can serve to protect and perpetuate the nonsense already inside.

Quick Case Study; The Archaeology of Stupid Scottish People
As a result of my work on Hadrian's Timber Wall, a colleague sought my opinion on the "Lilia" at Rough Castle, a Roman Fort on the Antonine Wall in Scotland,  I was not entirely convinced, but I have reserved judgment, - for several years.

05 February, 2014

Ramparts and Ditches - the Roman Killing Zone

 Recognizing the Timber Wall and Ditch, predating the more familiar Hadrian’s Wall, highlighted central importance of timber engineering to the Roman army in the field and took this research in an unexpected direction.
While many Roman military installations are identified by their bank and ditch, as archaeological remains they are often somewhat underwhelming, certainly compared with some hill forts, but history attests to their success in withstanding assault.  
The tactics behind these structures can be explored by using a simple SketchUp model of the sort of rampart and ditch described by Caesar[1], which can help illustrate how could a 12' high pile of wood with a ditch in front could stop whole armies.

20 January, 2014

#BlogArch Carnival; Most Significant post? Hadrian’s Timber Wall

This month’s question posed for the participants in the blog archaeology Carnival over Doug’s Archaeology is fairly flexible, I have chosen; what was your most significant post?
Archaeological Blogging; Inadmissible Evidence
In terms of its significance, Hadrian’s Timber Wall is the post that stands out, as it encapsulates everything about this blog and why I created it. 
It is not even in the top 10 most read posts, or as contentious as those about Class Ei buildings like Stonehenge [1], but the Timber Wall was a totally new concept, an unexpected research bonus, which got worldwide publicity.  From the blogosphere via my local paper the Hexham Courant, it found its way into various media including the BBC and even made cameo appearance on the History Channel.  Recently, I met someone who had been involved at the time, who was surprised that it had not made my career; sadly, it probably had quite the opposite effect.
Until July 2008 I was unaware that there were postholes in front of Hadrian’s Wall, but this was precisely the type of evidence I had been researching, and,  intrigued by their layout, I took a close look at them. The result was a rather scruffy analysis of the Buddle St postholes which I circulated among colleagues at TWM and Newcastle University, [reproduced in Appendix below]. This was genesis of the Timber Wall, and for a fleeting moment I imagined there was a possibility of it being part of the 60th Anniversary Limes Conference, to be hosted by Tyne and Wear Museums with the University the following year.
It was never going to happen; whatever the merits of the case, the latter had effectively blackballed me, and, while the former had subsequent made me redundant, far more importantly, TWM was the proponent of the theory that these postholes represented a system of obstacles [or cippi] [2,3].  Whereas archaeology in the field is about team work, academic life is not, and those who contribute to the existing Roman Wall narrative didn't appreciate an uncalled for contribution from an outsider rocking their navicula.

14 January, 2014

The archaeology of the Imaginary Spaces

One of the first things you learn as an archaeologist is that “History” is the study of specialist artefacts involving writing and other forms of recording, and that “Prehistory” is marked by the absence of such material. There is period we call “Proto-history”, in which “Prehistoric” issues are alluded to in later documents, providing plenty of scope for conjecture; ideas like “Druids” inhabit these spaces, along with more peripheral characters like Merlin and Arthur.
Narrative History on the BBC Television is a cultural phenomenon in its own right, and while Prehistory has always had the attraction of the mysterious, and offers the potential of a “Detective Story” format, in reality it has no recognisable narratives. Thus, I was very rude about “The History of Ancient Britain” series’ attempt to manufacture one, and so I greet the news of Neil Oliver's  “Sacred Wonders of Britain” with some degree of scepticism.   However, Neil is keen to get his retaliation in first;
 “We were at all times sensitive to one absolute truth – that it is quite impossible to put yourself in the mind of a Neolithic farmer, or to understand the thinking of an Iron Age druid.”

Good; this did seem to be lacking from the last outing into the past. However, as the program promises an exploration of Prehistoric sacredness, I suspect there is going to be a “but” in there somewhere.  Luckily there are experts on hand; in academia you get the “truth” you pay for.

07 January, 2014

Forthcoming 2014 Digital Exploration Season; Modelling Stonehenge and Edwin Harness.

Blogging your own research does allow you to preview what is coming up in future posts, and demonstrate despite the long gaps between posts you are still alive and kicking. [1]
My main in 2014 focus will be presenting 3D CAD models of Prehistoric roofed structures using Sketchup.
When I started building CAD Models of archaeological structures in 1990, it would have been quicker to build them in balsawood, and I little dreamt that one day a tool like Sketchup would not only run on a standard desktop, but also be available for free.
At present I am working on several [competing] fronts, with active models of Stonehenge, and an interesting Native American Building at the Edwin Harness Mound. In addition, I hope to do some additional work on Roman Military engineering structures, as well as Neolithic Longhouses should the opportunity arise. The problem that there is so much I have still to publish; among the built environments I have looked at in detail is a Romano British pottery at Orsett and Bronze Age fort which has a huge forge with a smoke bay.  However, as my work on Natïve American architecture demonstrates, you never what opportunities for collaboration may arise.
In this post I want to focus mainly on practical methodologies in 3D modelling of timber structures from archaeological ground plans.

14 December, 2013

Blog Carnival ; What is the good, the bad, and the Ugly of Blogging?


Over at his Archaeology Blog, Doug has posted the fantastic response to Why Blog Archaeology? He has also posed the latest question for the Blogging Archaeology at the 2014 SAA Conference Blog Carnival - What is the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Blogging Archaeology?
The Good and the Bad form a nice clear dialectic, for the path of blogger has both yin and yang; it has satisfied my desire to express myself; however, this  has also become a burden, a duty, and a source of guilt. Blogging has empowered me, but with power has come responsibility; while blogging may be free, it is also by the same token valueless. It is seen as something light and transient, but its presence may be permanent and its effects long lasting.
As for the Ugly - it is rather lost without the Beautiful, rendering the question a little unbalanced, as one of the ancients put it;

02 December, 2013

Blog Carnival; Archaeological Blogging – Why?

Over at Doug’s Archaeology Blog, Doug has organised a Blog Carnival about Archaeological Blogging. His open gambit was to ask the question why blog? And further why are you still Blogging?
Why blogging?
In many respects Theoretical Structural Archaeology is a statistical outlier, in that it presents original archaeological research from outside the academic system. Moreover, since it is evidence based metrical research into postholes, the most common of all archaeological features and central to understanding of ancient built environments, why is it being blogged?
Primarily, this blog is about empowerment of the individual to publish their research, however, it has to be said that the medium quite suits the visual nature of the subject, and its interactive nature has fostered some interesting collaborations.
It's a tale of exciting discoveries, dastardly deeds, betrayal, hope, friendship, and much raging against the machine, read on . . . . . .

08 October, 2013

Understanding more about Stonehenge as a Building

As the New Stonehenge interpretation centre  nears completion at a cost of £27 million *, I thought I should go a a little more detail about my understanding of the peculiar circumstances surrounding this unique building.
In a previous series of articles I have explained the disposition of the site’s postholes in terms of the overall layout of other Class Ei buildings [1, 2].
However, the actual construction sequence offers an explanation why the archaeology of this most intensively studied site has proved so confusing.

23 August, 2013

Starting to model Woodhenge in Google SketchUp

The Story so far
Since I decided to blog this research five years ago, one recurrent theme has been my attempts to understand the largest class of prehistoric buildings Class Ei. [1] This includes Durrington Walls, the Sanctuary, Mount Pleasant, Stonehenge, and Woodhenge, the latter being the most interesting as a result of its non-circular plan.
When, as a result of Tim Darvill’s 1996 paper, [1], I first considered Class Ei buildings, I was initially very sceptical of their scale; I had been working on IA roundhouses where there were clear engineering limits, and these appeared to break my rules for timber structures.   
Against this, I began the compilation of a list of characteristics that indicated they were buildings. While the technical insight that resolved this dilemma probably came from studying the engineering of earlier Longhouses, ultimately, progress comes from breaking down your preconceptions by building models that don’t work. I took the unusual step of actually publishing some the models that had not worked in order to demonstrate why it was necessary to create a more complex solution.
It is harder than you might imagine to deduce from the evidence, rather than simply impose ideas on it.

'...when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'
Sherlock Holmes –
The Blanched Soldier, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1927

19 July, 2013

Study archaeology in the North East; a new MA in Heritage Management at Durham

The region is exceptionally fortunate to have one of the world’s top universities, and its students are equally lucky be able to study in a beautiful historic city, in an area with a reasonable cost of living.
I would like to take the opportunity to promote my region as a place to study archaeology, and in particular draw the reader's attention to a new MA in Heritage Management at Durham University. 

"We have designed this degree to build upon our unique situation, living and working within a World Heritage Site - you will explore the concepts underlying the idea of cultural heritage and investigate the social, political, and economic impact of a variety of local, national, and international heritage organisations."

19 June, 2013

Hadrian's Timber Wall; Reverse engineering a Roman rampart in Google SketchUp

Caesar’s account of the war in Gaul contain over forty references to ramparts, some native, but mostly those built of timber with a ditch in front constructed by his army in the field. [1] I have argued that the three lines of double postholes with a ditch in front to the north of Hadrian Wall represent such a rampart.
Recently, I have been trying out Google SketchUp as tool to explore the engineering of this structure, and express structural ideas visually.  In a previous article I have discussed the issues of visual representations of the past, as distinct from models and diagrams.

CAD and the Archaeology of postholes
I bought my first CAD system in 1990, using it for my work in Essex, and subsequently offered my services to all the archaeological units and trusts working in England at the time; there were no takers.
However, I had also realised that as a tool in my attempts to understand the evidence of prehistoric posthole structures, CAD was not yet the answer.  It was not just that it was slow, a 486DX 25 MHz computer running at would take 12 hours to print a shaded view, but even more critically, putting a cone on cylinder and calling it a roundhouse did not advance my understanding, it was simply an aid to drawing more accurate ‘artistic’ reconstructions.

07 June, 2013

Professor Wallace-Hadrill interviewed about Herculaneum at Ideas Roadshow

Theoretical structural archaeology is about understanding the evidence of ancient built environments, and previously I have written about the importance of those sites ‘frozen in time’ by some disaster preserving buildings and content in situ.
For the Roman world, Herculaneum and Pompeii give us that unique insight, a level of detail, unimaginable in conventional archaeology, which has become central to our understanding of the period.  While we are familiar with plaster body castes, dramatic reconstructions, and looming clouds of volcanic death, quite what this really means to archaeology, archaeologists and everybody else is a lot more complex, nuanced, and interesting.