03 March, 2017

Systematic Irregularity; hidden in plain sight

When you start an excavation, or make an original observation, it may become your responsibility to give things a name, which is not as easy as it might seem. 
I inherited an archaeological site named Orsett “Cock”, the Cock in Question was the local pub, a perfectly reasonable and appropriate idea for archaeology in 1976, when google was a just spelling mistake.
It was working on the Orsett enclosure report, as I preferred to call it now, that I had to start naming parts of theoretical model structures, although I also floated an idea that I decided to call Systematic Irregularity.[1]
While it is my understanding that this idea exists in other forms, as an archaeologist doing detailed work on built environments, I had perceived that engineered structures were never square or rectangular, an observation that applied to both to foundations of small buildings and to layout of large ditched enclosures.
The original plans of six Little Woodbury 4 post structures [2]

Systematic Irregularity
Systematic irregularity is the deliberate avoidance of shapes comprising four right angles, [i.e., having right angles in opposite corners], which is apparent in the arts and crafts of Prehistory particularly the [Celtic] Iron Age.[3]  
Previously discussed here.
There is a sort of self-evident truth about the general observation which only really becomes significant when you consider its extent; this is something that goes much deeper than curvilinear art and design. 
Systematic Irregularity is observable as a design feature in the following areas;  
  1. Enclosures and “Celtic fields”; [above: [4]] these are almost by definition not quite regular, often this may be perceived as product of topography, but when you consider the lowlands, where aerial photography has revealed thousands of examples the pattern is remarkably irregular, even if 2 right angles, or 2 sets of parallel sides [parallelogram / rhombus] occur, squares are exceptional.
  2. Built environments;  [above: [5]] While the majority of British Iron buildings are considered to be round, smaller structures like 4 post structures [granaries] are always slightly irregular with one posthole slightly out of position.
  3. Celtic art and design; one of the defining characteristic of “Celtic” and other Prehistoric material is the general lack of right angles and the reliance of arcs or curve; this curvilinear  approach seems apparent in most aspects of material culture where evidence is available.  
  4. Square structures; I am aware three types of exceptions;
  • Roman-Celtic temples [above: [6]]
  • Burial enclosures  [below: [7]]
  • Burial pits    
On close inspection, none of the structures are precisely “square”, but it is clear they are fairly close, so that their common “religious” theme may be considered significant.



Heathrow Romano-Celtic Temple with Grid [outer c. 35" x 32" - inner 17"  x 14"] [8]

Systematic irregularity appears far more extensive than might be expected from handmade variation, carelessness, or an artistic approach material that embraces the curve; building and engineering in wood is about straight lines and regularity, even in a circular structure.
Even though these observations are made on the basis of a limited sample, they appear to be generally true enough to advance a theory that systematic irregularity represents a taboo against shapes with opposed right angles except perhaps for the resting places of the dead and structures associated with Gods.

In terms of observation, we are looking for the absence of something, which is only possible when we are clear about what it is that is not there.
Also, we tend only to notice things when they change, we are aware of the noise when it stops, or an object when it is missing, so it is only in contrast with the Roman culture for example, that we become aware that something is different.
It is not just the forts, buildings and art that change but utilitarian objects like swords and shields no longer have curving edges, whatever belief system drove systematic irregularity it was not generally shared by the Romans.

Coincidentally, it is the Roman fort at Vindolanda that provides an intriguing strand of evidence; when the fort is rebuilt in the Severan Period [per. VI] there is an annex with rows of stone roundhouse foundations.[9]  I would interpret these as being built to house hostages from those tribes in the intervening or adjacent areas between Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine frontier held to ensure their cooperation, [ as suggested by Tony Birley  [9]].  What is important about these buildings is that they imply that intended occupants, presumable British, won’t live in the rectangular structures normally built by the Romans.    
It is difficult to make this argument for individual types of articles, for example, there can are good practical reason why a sword should a curved edge, as well as technical reasons evident in the earlier cast bronze swords from which they developed.  So, in many ways, the strength of the argument lies in the irregularity buildings and larger engineered structures like enclosures.
Regular Irregularity
It is worth considering irregularity in structures more generally, although a good example is Moslem art & architecture which is also systemically irregular or rather systematically imperfect, while it may only be perceptible to the craftsman, geometric perfection is deliberately avoided, although never to the point where the art or structure is compromised, [left [10]].  As an archaeologist I am always wary of assuming that ideas originate with the culture well known for expressing or documenting them; practices in architecture are the result of a much longer term technical evolution. The earliest buildings in Western Europe are the longhouses of the LBK Neolithic farmers which have “irregular” looking plans apparently lacking the precision of later rectilinear buildings, which is legitimate expectation. [11]
While this all adds to impression of simplistic huts built by primitive people as illustrated in the visual culture of the past, in reality it is the footprint a complex building technology which can only be understood in 3 dimensions.  
Although they do not conform up to our expectations of regularity, it has been my experience that the layout of prehistoric building is very precise in terms of the projected superstructure.  More concisely, it is my understanding that because these structures have reversed assembly with offset jointing, the apparent irregularity in the foundation is contrived to create perfectly aligned rafter pairs to form a symmetrical roof.   
So here, at the beginning of timber architecture in Western Europe, we have a structural system where what we might perceive as irregularity, is an integral part of a system designed to create regular symmetrical structure.
There are seemingly good reasons why opposing right angles might not be present in this type of structure period, but there also an interesting tendency towards slightly tapering buildings which is also reflected in long barrows tombs, [houses for the dead].[12] It could be argued that during this period circularity was reserved for ceremonial or religious structures.
The Mundane Circle
There is a radical change to a preference for circular structures for the living and the dead in the Early Bronze Age, which I associate with the arrival of the Beaker Cultural Group.
This remains the general pattern into the Late Iron Age, where It could be argued that squares were reserved for ceremonial or religious structures during this period.  This apparent emphasis on circularity in domestic buildings makes systematic irregularity difficult to detect except in those small utilitarian buildings that are recognised. The technical issues of creating circular buildings from straight timbers, especially large ones, is easily overlooked; compared to rectilinear systems, they are more complex, require more resources, are less flexible, and more difficult to combine.  In terms of circularity, it is also important to understand that many structures are effectively polygonal being constructed with straight horizontal  timbers.
The notion of sacred geometry is just a cliché of the mysterious; however, there is a very real and specialised understanding that is required to create architecture. In many ways, it is this knowledge of practical geometry that defines architects/engineers as distinct class in society in much the same way as we might perceive smiths, only much older and more fundamental.  Ultimately, it is the culture of these craftsmen that theoretical structural archaeology is attempting to understand.
The pattern of mixed agriculture upon which our prehistoric and historic culture was based was only possible through effective architecture and civil engineering.  Regardless of how collective or specialised we might wish to view the process of construction, there has to be a mind with the appropriate set of conceptual skills in control of it all.  The built environment is so ever present that, except when it goes wrong, we hardly question how it got there or consider who designed it.  Much the same lack of curiosity is evident in archaeology where the evidence for structures is ever present on some types of site in the form of postholes which are largely ignored to such that the concept of a built environment is not even discussed; all the processes that happen indoors, especially those requiring specialist buildings are not part of our understanding of the past. 
Profane Geometry
Our awareness of the use of geometry in prehistory, like culture in general, has become fixated on the scared, the ritual, and what that tells us of peoples’ conception of themselves, although in reality, geometry is rarely considered beyond the superficially of shapes, usually circles, which magically infers a connection between things regardless of context or scale.  

Systematic irregularity does not have to be explained, since this would require detailed knowledge about the thinking of a preliterate culture.  It is a useful observation, especially to the process of theoretical modelling of buildings which is based on creation of geometrically accurate structures.  It also has to be taken into account in the process of identifying new posthole structures, which also has a prejudice towards regularity of pattern as evidence of structural relationships. 


Sources and further reading:
[1] G. A. Carter, 1998: Excavations at the Orsett ‘Cock’ enclosure, Essex, 1976. East Anglian Archaeology Report No 86.
[2] G. Bersu, 1940: Excavations at Little Woodbury, Wiltshire. Part 1, the settlement revealed by excavation. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 6, 30 -111
[3] I am using the term “Celtic” in a fairly loose and generic, not wishing to get into issues about the use of the word in archaeology, notwithstanding I have no particular view on the distribution  of systematic irregularity.
[4] Illustration cobbled together from Interpretative Devolution and the Iron Ages in Britain, B. Bevan, ed. Fig 10.3, p153 [Scrooby Top]. B. Cunliffe, 1978: Iron Age Communities in Britain: An Account of England, Scotland and Wales from the Seventh Century BC Until the Roman Conquest. 2nd edition. Routlage & Kegan Paul. Figs: [11.6] Aldwinkle Northhamptonshire, [11.5] Casterley Camp, Wiltshire, [11.14] Portsdown Hill, Hampshire, [2.4] South Lodge, Dorsett
[5] Taken from: Downs, Jane, 1997: The Shrine at Cadbury Castle: Belief enshrined. In Adam Gwilt and Colin Haselgrove, eds: Reconstructing Iron Age Societies. Oxbow Monograph 71, Oxford, 145–152
[6] A. C. King & G. Soffe, 1994: The Iron Age and Roman temple on Hayling Island, in A. P. Fitzpatrick and E. L. Morris, eds.: The Iron Age in Wessex: recent work, Salisbury: Trust for Wessex Archaeology, 114-16
[7] S. Piggott, 1965: Ancient Europe, Edinburgh University Press: Fig 131, p 233
[8] W. F. Grimes and J. Close-Brooks, 1993: Caesar’s Camp, Heathrow, Middlesex. Proc Prehist Soc 59, 299-317
[9] Burley R 2009, Vindolanda A Roman fort on Hadrians Wall. Amberley ISBN978-1-84868-210-8  p. 140
[10] [15] From Figure 5: http://www.geometricdesign.co.uk/perfect.htm Taken from: Martin Lings, 1987: Splendours of Qur'an Calligraphy and Illumination ISBN: 0500976481 Interlink Pub Group Inc.
[11] PJR Modderman (1970), 'Linearbandkeramik aus Elsloo und Stein 2.' Tafelband, Leiden Univ., Faculty of Archaeology.
PJR Modderman (1975), 'Elsloo, a Neolithic farming community in the Netherlands,' in Bruce-Mitford, R L S, Recent archaeological excavations in Europe, Chapter IX.
PJR Modderman (1985), D'ie Bandkeramik im Graetheidegebiet, Niederländisch-Limburg.' Berichte der Römisch- Germanischen Kommission, 66::25-121.

14 January, 2017

Virtual Archaeology Quiz with Real Prize

What is the first thing you would teach an archaeologist?

After 150 page views with no guesses - and as a tacit acknowledgement of this venal and wicked world -  I am raising the stakes by offering a real prize to a virtual quiz.

**  The Prize  ** 

The Prize is this beautiful and valuable Corinthian oinochoe hand painted in a Wild Goat Style by a real Greek craftsman, with a genuine TPQ date of 550 bc,  it comes complete with lead seal guaranteeing its inauthenticity and Free Worldwide Postage to the lucky winner. 


The Question

What would you would  teach in lesson 1 - paragraph 1 - to your new student or employee about archaeology?
The first steps are an important moment on the path to being an archaeologist, so where would you start?

Or perhaps, what were you taught first on your first day in archaeology?  

Please feel free to confide, speculate reminisce or guess in comments below.

All answers may be marked out of 10 and the first to the correct answer will win the prize [1].


The Prize - a Corinthian oinochoe height 95 mm  [N.109] 


[1] Marked for conformity to the appropriate marking framework draw up in accordance with a subsequent clue provided or in relation the usual regulations, and in particular, those pertaining under the remit of the Sub-committee for Arbitrary Subjectivity as constituted in accordance with the accepted practices of Non-Accountability Policy Commission at the  Examinations Board of Tyneside University, produced in association with Bet-your-life Educational Services, a wholly owned subsidiary of G4S Premium Pedagogy [China] inc. of Panama [2];  Your life may be at risk if fail to choose the correct option.
[2] All apparent acronyms are entirely fabricated from existing letters, which are coincidental with publicly available and locally sourced generic alphabets, and notwithstanding any intrinsic plausibility, are works of fiction and as such are inherent deniable with no intentional resemblance to any existing, co-existing, non-existing or metaphorical abbreviations. 

01 January, 2017

2016 - Review of the Year

One of basic principles that always governed my professional practice in commercial world was “Always do what you say you are going to do”, if everyone sticks to this, then even quite complex projects can come together successfully.   Since the year started with a bold statement of intent concerning building a model of a CAD Class Ei building, some form of progress report is probably due.   However, what happens, or is reported on this blog, is a separate issue to what is going on in terms of research; you can do it or write about it; it is not that there is nothing to report, but that things are changing; you can spend weeks illustrating and writing a post about a particular problem, only to find that you have solved it. 
There are other things going on; I am virtually busy working on a range of other case studies, methodology, and projects with other people; there is even the real world, which exacts its a terrible crushing toll on a daily basis.  

03 December, 2016

Hadrian's News in Brief

Any archaeologist will tell you that dealing with press is always fun; you may get all the right words—but not necessarily in the right order, so I am reasonably happy with results of a recent press briefing to my local paper,  The Hexham Courant.  I am not sure if maverick is an upgrade on controversial, but perhaps after 7 years I've earned it, although I'll be sticking to structural archaeologist for the time being.
They had previously reported my work on the Hadrian’s Wall and I wanted to bring them up to date with my latest discovery that the idea of a “Turf Wall” –  a Roman Wall made from turfs - was scientifically unsustainable.[1] Once I had managed to get the absolute untruths edited out of the final copy, I am reasonable relaxed about the minor factual inaccuracies, and some of it is spot on.  
However, I have never learned the lesson of producing a nice crisp press release, which does most of the hard work for you, although it has prompted me to try and produce a summary of my view of the evidence for an early Wall in succinct a form, at least as it differs from traditional accounts.

04 November, 2016

Virtual Archaeology; A Roman Timber Rampart


The need to illustrate recent speaking engagements, has necessitated the revisiting a virtual model of the Roman timber rampart based on foundations found at Shields Road, Byker, which a real place in Newcastle. [1]  In addition, live reaction to my work, provides an opportunity to reconsider and improve its subsequent presentation, and thus every question, comment or observation is important. 
Since this particular technological approach, and in particular the underlying reverse engineering, has proved  too advanced for a parochial academia, it is worth restating the fundamental methodical differences between CAD modelling and visualisation of the past.  
The use of engineering  in the understanding of structures can produce models with varying degrees of certainty and spatial accuracy, but what it cannot really do is tell you what the past looked like.  While the artist’s reconstruction has become the de facto money shot of archaeotainment staples such as Time Team, and even on the front of serious archaeological reports, a picture is worth a thousand peer reviewed words, ultimately, there is no inherent entitlement or legitimacy to a visual culture of the past. 

11 October, 2016

An Irish Mystery

Over the years, all sort of interesting sites have turned up in my inbox from correspondents seeking my opinion on what they have found.  This has included a potential biblical site in the Sinai Desert that I subsequently identified as the archaeological impression a SAM missile battery, however, by far the most exciting structure arrived in the form of a resistivity survey image that I received from Ireland. 
It arrived without any detailed context information or identification; this is perfect – the biggest problem in this type of analysis is observer bias, so the less I know the better; all that matters is the data provided, in this case a survey.
Unfortunately, I get involved in this type of type of thing because I specialise in engineered structures, so like many archaeologists looking at this type of image I have a first impression.  This initial bias, which equally might also be regarded as  skill or expertise, can only be mediated by adherence to some form of deductive methodology.  Just like a police enquiry, there may be a prime suspect, but it still important to eliminate other potential suspects; if you are going to allege that this is the remains of one of largest ancient structures ever built in Ireland, you better have a watertight case.

30 September, 2016

De-turfing The Wall at Greenhead

A Date for the Diary
On Wednesday, 26th October, at 6.30pm. I have been very kindly invited by Greenhead Local History Group to give talk on the Wall as described below.

PRESS RELEASE
The Greenhead Local History Group Public Lecture in October returns!
The subject this year will be those two “other” structures that form part of the package we know as “Hadrian’s Wall : the Vallum and the Turf Wall.  We know they existed, we know roughly where they were, and can recognise bits of them as we pass by,  but few of ushave really understood much about them, and visitors often fail to notice them at all.  So we do tend to airbrush both of them from our mental picture of “The Wall” and the facts are rarely questioned.
Geoff Carter, on the other hand, has looked closely - and he has come up with some interesting questions for us to consider.  

13 July, 2016

Reading the Wall

Conference; Reading the WallNewcastle University; 15/6/16 – 17/6/16.
The Turf Wall and the Vallum: Linguistic Dislocation on Hadrian’s Wall; Geoff Carter.
Abstract;  Above and beyond the physical reality of its archaeological deposits, Hadrian’s Wall exists as a literary entity with its own distinct vocabulary including Latin loan words.   Research has often been confined to this linguistic construct, creating an understanding that has in part been conditioned by the inherent meaning of its own terminology, in certain cases this circularity has resulted in a growing discontinuity between what is discussed and what is actually present.  The paper considers this process with specific reference to the Turf Wall and the Vallum, contrasting the physical evidence in terms of their soil science to the textural narrative, reaching different conclusions as to the nature of these important early structures.
Or, in short, the paper explains that the Turf Wall could not have been made from turf, along with the more familiar idea that The Vallum was not a vallum, which has some interesting implications for our understanding of Hadrian's Wall.

26 April, 2016

Reverse engineering the past

It is spring, the swallows have returned to the farm, so it is time for a mission statement, or an explanation what after 8 years on the internet Theoretical Structural Archaeology is all about, again. 
In essence it very simple, just as knowledge of potting is necessary for understanding pottery, so understanding engineering is important for a archaeologists dealing with the archaeological remains of engineered environments.  However, this really about being able to think like potter or an engineer, it concerns archaeology as a mind-set rather than a written subject.  Not that it is actually that technical, given the sorts of the data sets we recover, and of course it is only one of many core skills required for field archaeology.  The key point to grasp, at least in principle, is that engineered structures can be described mathematically, and therefore can be modelled.  

24 February, 2016

Hadrian's Wall; understanding The Vallum

The Vallum is one of the largest earthworks in the world, part of Hadrian's Wall World Heritage site, and yet is seldom discussed, perhaps because while its interpretation may work on paper, it makes less sense on the ground.
It is an excellent example of how in archaeology, what we name something conditions the way we perceive it, and how our literary constructs  can develop independently of the underlying physical evidence. 
The Vallum is one of the oldest concepts in the literature of Hadrian’s Wall, originating with the Venerable Bede in the eighth century, and while this structure is not a vallum in any way shape or form, all subsequent literature would appear to have developed from this idea.
In more recent times, it was apparent that the earthwork was not defensive, but it was nonetheless usually regarded as a boundary or barrier between the Wall and something else, with even the language used to describe the earthwork being shaped to accommodate this underlying assumption.
However, to understand the Vallum you have to look at it with the perspective of a structural archaeologist, luckily, I see it every day, so I know with a reasonable degree of certainty that is a construction trench for an unfinished road, an argument I discussed in detail 5 years ago [here]; subsequently and more generally [here].

31 January, 2016

A blogging Carnival; Grand Challenges for Archaeology; reverse engineering Stonehenge

#blogarch
In response to the latest blog Carnival organised by Doug Rocks-Macqueen, the champion of archaeological blogging, over at Doug’sArchaeology, I am posting about the challenges of modelling a prehistoric roof structure in 3D.

The story so far…
My work is based on the idea that archaeological buildings are mathematical structures which can be detected and understood using the same principles that underpin the engineering of the built environment.
As regular readers will know, I have had the misfortune to have discovered how, in theory, the large Neolithic / EBA structures represented by postholes known as Class Ei buildings [1] worked, at least in plan and section.   The next stage is to model the structure in 3D to understand its assembly; the initial challenge is finding an appropriate starting point, since the value of everything else, and many man hours is dependent on this decision.  What is also challenging, at least in an abstract sense, is that the Ei building I am currently modelling at moment is Stonehenge, the well-known ritual monument and mystery at heart of British faith-based archaeology.

20 January, 2016

2016 A Monumental New Year

Ditched Enclosures in Neolithic Europe
I have to thank Víctor Jiménez Jáimez for raising me from the deep sepulchral gloom of my seasonal torpidity, to bring you news of his new website ; Ditched Enclosures in Neolithic Europe.
He has produced an excellent site that is not only technically accomplished, but also succeeds in conveying the physical scale and geographical spread of Neolithic enclosures. Using some of the latest information and modern methods of presentation it is an excellent introduction to the topic as a European phenomenon.  The site is completely non-profit, and is aimed at the general public, but would be a good introduction for archaeology students, as the Neolithic is a period that is best understood in a European context.

29 September, 2015

Faith, Archaeology and the Gods

Recent events in the Middle East, or rather several millennia of tragedy in the area, has highlighted the issues of Gods, and the problems they cause, so should archaeologists have any dealings with the supernatural? 
Meta-parables
Faith changes people’s lives, although it is often other folk’s beliefs, rather than our own that have the most significant impact; my life changed forever at Newcastle University where my work based on mathematics proved no match for a revelatory “Iron Age Building Cosmology”; as we shall see, when creating myth a power-base is more important than an evidence base. While rationality, at least as expressed in science and maths is universal, Gods, despite their claims are usually fairly locally based, archaeology is aware of this because we know where they lived. While Gods clearly can inhabit a variety of elements and dimensions, it probably saves confusion when interacting with human society if they have a principle residence from where they can transact their business.

19 July, 2015

Deconstructing a Stonehenge "House"

A game of blind house detective
When a reader contacted me to ask my opinion on a reconstruction that was referred to as “the Stonehenge House”, I saw an interesting opportunity for a blind test.  In truth, I had not looked at this, so I requested and received a copy of the archaeological plan from Durrington Walls on which the reconstruction was based. I fully expected to produce a different conclusion since, as an archaeologist, I try to work by deduction, rather than by comparison or projection; it's the difference between astronomy and astrology.
I sent my reply back in just over a day, in the form of the drawing reproduced below.  It was just a quick hack; it has taken a lot longer to write it up for this post, probably because in term as of scale it is more like a Stonehenge Shed, and I have more significant structures I should be working on, but being an Aries, I can’t resist a challenge.   
Regular readers will be aware that I do have serious prejudices about the nature of built environments in this period, which included  large class Ei buildings like “Durrington Walls” [1].  My interest is mainly in this main structure, which  I know was a building, even though only half survives, because I have done the maths; post-processual academics know it is “ritual” because they haven’t.

13 July, 2015

Parish Notices: An exciting new blog, a Blogging Survey with a * Prize * + the future in the Stars

An exciting new blog to visit
For some time I have been discussing some interesting research with Michael Carter of Ryerson University; He has been working on a project to utilise modern graphics engines to build virtual Native longhouses. This site gives a run-down on development of the research;
In particular the current state of the project:
This research touches on a many issues central to the use of modern computer graphics in the realisation of the past.  For my part, I am obliged by the limitation of deductive processes and reverse engineering to sidestep the issue; the intent of my practice is to understand the engineering principles behind a structure, with the classes of evidence available I cannot realistically understand its skin.  This is disappointing, because that is the vision that people think they want.   However, once you start imagining the past, there is a danger that pictures become more important than the evidence, because now they can be a lot more “real” than the archaeology.  For me the expression, recognition and understanding of doubt are significant issues.

24 May, 2015

Understanding Hadrian's Wall - why it all went wrong

What's the big idea?
It is roughly 270 years since a government in Westminster had Hadrian’s Wall systematically demolished and crushed to make the road that now brings the tourists to see the bits they missed.  It helped create a vast fragmentary jigsaw puzzle that which has proved difficult to piece together.
In 2008, I recognised that my colleagues and others had discovered, under the streets of Tyneside, the remains of a temporary timber rampart predating the stone Wall.  This observation explained the strategic methodology of Wall construction, shed light on the motivation, while providing a starting point for the process in both time and space; it was a key piece of the jigsaw; a how, why and where for the start of the Wall.

30 April, 2015

Building the Past - in Ohio

I have been blogging about the archaeology of structures for nearly 7 years, during which Google tells me I have a little over half a million page views; some of this self-selecting audience get in touch and we take things further.
One such was Bill Kennedy; we share an interest in modelling  archaeological structures from their foundations, only he builds full scale Prehistoric Native American structures at Sun Watch nr. Dayton, while I like mine to fit on my drawing board or hard disc.
So, at Bill’s instigation, we have written a chapter together in Building the Past: Prehistoric Wooden Post Architecture in the Ohio Valley–Great Lakes, recently published by University of Florida.
"This volume presents a much-needed synthesis of prehistoric wooden architecture in the greater Ohio region. The authors pursue new avenues of research in explaining architectural variation from rarely encountered Archaic domestic structures to large public buildings of Fort Ancient societies."--Cameron Lacquement, editor of Architectural Variability in the Southeast

"A significant contribution to the cultural history of the Ohio Valley and the archaeological literature on perishable architecture. The primary data and detailed descriptions of wooden post constructions make it a valuable resource."--Sissel Schroeder, University of Wisconsin-Madison

13 March, 2015

Imaginary woods

Often, when we think about the past, we do so in our imaginations, using the pictures and impressions we have picked from our shared visual culture, we mix the real things we find into a fantasy world.  Envisioning the environment in terms of its familiar topography and plants does not present much of a problem, domestic animals are bits hazier, but most of the things that made up the fabric of life just don’t survive here in our damp climate.  However, even trees in the picture may not be clear, the focus of archaeology is on tools, seldom extending to a consideration of the materials and products that gave them utility and value.  How to discuss, visualise and define things that no longer exists except in the imagination is one central issues of presenting archaeology.


10 February, 2015

Where is the woodshed?

Much of the material culture of past was fabricated from timber, and, just as significantly, fuelled by wood, a material that is usually invisible to archaeology.  Thus, provision for fuel storage, like sanitation and water supply, is one of the basics that have to be considered in the analysis of built environments.
Traditionally, firewood is measured by stacked volume; a “cord” being a stack of 8x4x4 feet, or 128 cubic feet, including the spaces between logs.[1]  The calorific value of a cord will depend mostly on the actual mass of solid wood and its density, so it is difficult to be precise or make comparisons, but we could nominally say a cord was equivalent to 3,341 kwh [2].
A medium sized house in the UK uses on average 13,500kWh of gas for heat and cooking [& 3,200kWh of electricity] [3], so to replace this with wood require about 4 cords [16’ x 8’ x 4’]; so a year’s supply would fill the garage, or perhaps the spare bedroom.

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.