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.

Analysis of unnamed site
Notwithstanding some minor edits to text and improvement to the layout of illustrations, the following is the case as I presented it.  As this site and its context are unknown, this is certainly not a conventional report, simply a list of observations which together form the basis of my analysis.  It concentrates on scale, which in architecture, is related to technology and hence to period.  
My approach is drew up a rough model plan of the principle features, which is then measured and considered in terms of its structural geometry.  The relationship between the features being indicative of an architectural scheme, which represents a particular approach to the engineering of roofed space.
Having identified the most likely type of structure, there was little point in going beyond this, since others are better positioned to do this without speculation. 

- § § § § § -
On the basis of the resistivity image supplied with no other contextual information, and having initially identified the principle components as a basic model, [above], I would make the observations that follow.

  • As the figure [below]  illustrates, Early Neolithic domestic and farm buildings are relatively small roofs around 25’ wide, by the later Neolithic / Early Bronze Age 50-60’ spans could be achieved, and were used in conjunction to create larger roofed spaces, which were usually circular, and did not use load baring walls.   
  • A typical Prehistoric roof foundations have about 1 post per 10m², a structure this size would require something like 300 -400 postholes.
  • In addition Prehistoric roofs tended to be supported at the apex.

  • It is much larger than medieval English timber barns like Cressing Temple  – built at the scale limit of that technology.
  • The width of the roof is close to the technological limit for timber roofs with stone foundations, Westminster Hall being the largest known historically.   
  • The width of the structure suggests a building with stone foundations, [which have been robbed].
  • High status royal or aristocratic architecture would be fortified or enclosed in most periods.
  • In the context of Ireland, only in the Christian Period do we see building on this scale, where it is part of European architectural tradition of ailed stone structures. [Cathedral St Denis, France is a random example with double aisle of similar scale]
  • Within a monastic or ecclesiastic context, industrial and agricultural buildings although substantive were small in scale, only the places of worship were were this size.
  • Alignment; the structure is aligned E-W which is more typical of Christian and later eras than in Prehistoric periods.
  • The construction of building on this scale may have several phases of development and adaption. 
  • The layout and spacing of components is generally appropriate for an ailed building; a double aisle A & B, with C as the Nave; [D is problematic].
  • The large anomaly in the centre of the structure is probably best understood as crypt. 
  • The structure appears continues to the east beyond the transverse wall with an “entrance” at the end of the nave into what should be a Choir / Chancel.
  • This is an important and diagnostic area of this type of building, being the location of a crossing in a cruciform plan, and a place for a tower for example; it is not clear what is going, but some substantive structures are indicated, perhaps towers. 
  • The lack of any obvious major structures to the North is typical of a church within a monastic built environment. 
  • The lack of evidence for a crossing / North transept indicative of a cruciform plan is surprising. 
  • However, and this is important - if you seek you tend to find – so it is possible a case can be made, but I did not notice any extention to the North when I drew my initial plan. 
  • Measurements; while it is difficult to be concise with the data provided at this scale, the structure is clearly proportionate and symmetrical.
  • It can be understood as laid out in feet/ cubits; the nave 60‘ wide, with 14’ bay/ pillar spacing, having two pairs 20’ “aisles”; 140’ wide in total, suggesting a building originally about 420’ long.
Caveats, uncertainties and doubts
1. The centre alignment pairing D has no structural function in the overall scheme, but it can be seen that its layout relates to the principle alignment C which defines the nave; possible explanations for D: 
Construction features
Earlier structure 
Underfloor features related to a under croft / crypt.
2. Since the configuration East of the Nave is unclear is difficult to understand the architectural style of the building as a whole. 

  • The scale, layout and implied engineering technology preclude it being a prehistoric structure.
  • The only reasonable archaeological context is a robbed stone built Christian place of worship.  
  • The plan appears to be a fairly basic basilica / Romanesque plan, substantial but fairly plain; which might suggest Pre-Norman date.  
In addition. . . .
  • I might surmise that the presence of this type of structure was not suspected, and thus the site is not well documented which may suggest an early dissolution.
  • The Scale of the structure suggests a significant, perhaps royal endowment or patronage. 
  • A crypt in the centre may indicate an association with relics / pilgrimage / saints.
  • A significant volume of stone has gone somewhere locally after its dissolution, and may have reemerged as a castle or religious institution nearby. 
Therefore, since the location is known, it will be fairly straightforward to give this site an historical context.

 - § § § § § -
While it is far from easy, it is important to maintain an  open mind during any process of structural analysis, where observer bias may lead to looking only  for those things that confirm any initial impression or theory.   Archaeology requires a high degree of self-awareness and vigilance when it comes to reasoning, however, an understanding of which types of observation are technically significant can produce a degree of certainty with some types of data.  In this case, once you can demonstrate from its geometry that this was a roofed structure, then in terms of the spaces defined by the parallel lines of features, scale is the key determinant in defining what type of engineering is represented in the below ground archaeology. 
As far as I can see, what we have here is probably one of the largest Christian buildings ever built in Ireland, the precise location of  which was previously unknown.  Any religious foundation on this scale is likely to be known of historically, but like many such buildings, their dissolution and recycling was so thorough, that they have become  forgotten,  "lost", probably much as intended by the new order which replaced them.
While its location is not known to me, I do have do have a shrewd idea where it is, which only adds to my conviction that this will prove to be a very significant discovery for the archaeology of the early Church in Ireland. 

More information on Cathedral St Denis in northern Paris, a singly important Church and French royal burial site, is available here.

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.

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.  

Geoff is a Structural Archaeologist, believing that 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 … being able to think like potter or an engineer…"

“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, when we name something, it conditions the way we perceive it … 
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 it is …. “

- So - come and find out what Geoff has discovered, both about the Vallum and about the  Turf Wall!   

The lecture,“Hadrian’s Wall: Understanding the Turf Wall and the Vallum”,  takes place in Greenhead Village Hall on Wednesday, 26th October, at 6.30pm

There will be a small charge to cover costs and an opportunity to chat over
refreshments afterwards about the Local History Group, its past activities and its possible future, as well as about what we have heard.

The Vallum; A Mysterious Earthwork?

"Along the whole line this mysterious earthwork keeps company with the Wall”
Edward Conybeare 1903

It seems somewhat demeaning to have one of the largest earthworks in the world on our patch  and have it still regarded as mysterious, more especially since it was built by the Roman army, not an organisation known their enigmatic constructions.   Hopefully, I will be able to debunk some of the existing myths, in particular, why such a comparatively narrow strip of land behind the Wall was so significant that it required a 120 foot wide boundary of unprecedented size and form to define it; either behaving irrationality is something they caught off the natives, or perhaps this monument deserves some better explanation....

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

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? 
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.

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....