Blog : Posts tagged with 'archaeology' : Page 2


The Unconnected

In which we bear bad news

Breaking bad news to people is always hard to do. Even if it’s something as mundane as a dead computer. I took a quick look at a machine one of the staff had brought in from home, in my lunch break; it’s vitally important she gets it working again, apparently, because it’s got all her daughter’s schoolwork on it, and they have to have a computer now to do all their assignments on.* It only needed a quick look to show that it’s not coming back to life. Its hard disk is almost certainly now a former hard disk, with no hope of getting her homework back.** But how do I tell her?

Latest addition to my RSS reader: Bad Archaeology. The navigation is a bit awkward, and their “latest news” page doesn’t seem to get archived, but there’s some very good stuff in there, if, like me, you would love to try poking members of the Erich von Däniken Fan Club with long pointy sticks. Their latest article is on King Arthur, as an example of what happens when you set out to prove a point, and try to use archaeology to do that. I’m tempted to write something longer about exactly that, soon.

In other news: I’ve been listening to Phoebe Kreutz lately. Her songs make me smile, and make me want to listen to more of her songs. So that has to be a good thing. Hurrah for good things!

* I’m not sure I believe that. This isn’t a rich town, and there must be many many children in the area whose parents don’t have a PC.

** A normal boot sequence halts with “Non-system disk or disk error”, which, if your other drives are all empty, is never a good sign. A Linux boot CD finds the hard disk, prints out lots of nasty disk hardware errors, and then says it can’t read the partition table. Not good, not at all.

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In which we’re puzzled over Tintagel and an archaeological definition

If you looked at yesterday’s photos of Tintagel, and read all the tooltip captions, you might have noticed that I described one of them as showing a souterrain; or, at least, a souterrain-ish thing. Noone, as far as I know, calls it a souterrain; and I’m not entirely sure why.

I could be wrong here. I don’t have access to an academic library, or a big pile of archaeological literature on the place. So I’m not sure that noone, ever, has said there’s a souterrain at Tintagel. I haven’t found anything yet, though.*

A souterrain is a fairly common thing in British and French archeology. It’s an underground passage, with a bend in the middle. They’re generally found in France, Cornwall, and north-east Scotland; although in Cornwall they’re called fogous; and there are examples elsewhere as well. Noone really knows what they’re for. There are plenty of ideas, but all of the ideas have flaws. You could store food there, but it probably wouldn’t keep well, as souterrains don’t have great drainage. Animals: the same problem, and they’d be too awkward for anything other than poultry or sheep to go in and out of. You could hide in it – but attackers would be pretty stupid to go away without checking the big hole in the ground coming out twenty yards from your house. So, noone really knows what they’re for. We could go back to the standard archaeological “I don’t know why this is here” standby – “it had a ritual purpose” – but frankly, we may as well just admit that we don’t know what they were for.

The thing that British souterrains generally have in common, though, is that they were dug in earth. Some may have had above-ground roofs at some point. Most probably had multiple phases of building and rebuilding;** and most were stone-lined at some point in their lives. They had corbelled roofs. A corbelled vault is a bit like an arched vault, but is less sophisticated, and a lot less stable.***

The Tintagel passage, though, isn’t dug into earth. It’s tunnelled through bedrock, with metal-edged tools – which fits the presumed dates of the other souterrains and fogous out there. It has a similar profile to a corbelled vault, but it isn’t one. It’s the right sort of size, though, and it has the characteristic bend in the middle. The bedrock, though, is so far as I can see the only “not a souterrain” factor to it. It’s in the middle of a medieval castle – but a medieval castle built on a site that had been occupied for hundreds of years previously. It’s on top of a rocky headland – if you did want to build a classic earth-dug souterrain, you’d be a bit stuffed, because there isn’t enough depth of earth to tunnel into. Nevertheless, to my eye, it looks just like it should be listed as one, even though the local materials and circumstances were different. Archaeology can be a strange thing, sometimes.

* If you search the web for the phrase tintagel souterrain, yesterday’s post is the top hit already.

** but what long-use buildings don’t?

*** Which is why they’re not used any more. It looks a bit like an arch, but solely with horizontal courses of stone. Wikipedia has some explanatory diagrams.

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In which we visit Cornwall

This June was originally going to be Photo Month on this site, given the oodles of photos I took on holiday. Unfortunately, I took so many photos on holiday,* I still haven’t managed to sort through them all yet.

Here’s a few, to be going on with. The Tintagel area. I have more to write about Tintagel.

Medieval arch, Tintagel Souterrain-like tunnel, Tintagel Beach, Tintagel
Beach, Tintagel Church, Tintagel

* 803 in total

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In which we know where the bodies aren’t buried

Archaeology news story of the week: British pagans have decided that archaeologist should hand prehistoric skeletons over to them for reburial. Which is, of course, a silly idea, and one that a lot of archaeologists have a problem with.

Archaeologists naturally tend towards conservation. It’s something that’s drummed into them all through their training: you can only dig something up the once, so once you have it in your hands you have to look after it. You store it away carefully, because you never know when you’ve managed to extract all possible information from it. That’s why throwing something away – and that’s what reburial amounts to in many ways – is anathema to an archaeologist. To most practical archaeologists, artefacts like skeletons are a bit of a nuisance. If you’re in the field, they lead to lots and lots of paperwork.* If you’re back at the lab, you have to look after them – artefact aftercare ends up costing about ten times as much as your average dig does, at the least.** But you still have to look after them, because otherwise you’re not really an archaeologist.

A pagan quoted in that article says:

Any story that is reconstructed from [prehistoric skeletons] will be an imagined past, which usually turns out to be a blueprint of the present imposed upon the past

Which is, indeed, true. But it’s also true of modern pagan religions, to be fair. Modern paganism is an entirely modern religion. It draws influences from prehistoric religions, but so do other modern-day religions such as Mormonism. There’s very little direct link between any religion today and any European religion of three thousand years ago, so any claim of continuity is rather suspect. For one thing, there’s a huge variety of religious practise in British prehistory, which suggests that religions changed in nature over time then just as they do now. At some times people were buried in graves as they are now; at some times they were buried, or exposed, and then their skeletons were taken apart and stacked up somewhere.*** At some times, they were cremated. Sometimes they were buried in a “partially articulated” state – which means the body was still meaty enough for some of the major joints to hold together, but rotten enough for some big bits to have dropped off. In East Yorkshire, rich people were buried in chariots; which just goes to show that people from East Yorkshire have always been slightly strange.****

Which of those different types of burial represents different religions? It’s hard to say, because religion doesn’t always determine burial type. Which of them represents any of the various strands of modern paganism? None of the above. There’s no reason why remains shouldn’t be treated with respect; but equally there’s no reason why any modern religion should claim to have responsibility over them.

* especially for skeletons, because there’s all sorts of legal paperwork to fill in to prove you didn’t just bury the body the other week.

** and digs are bloody expensive

*** this, with burial, is more or less what happened from medieval times through to the 18th century; it was only after that that people started to see the grave as “eternal rest”.

**** no, really, the Iron Age archaeology of East Yorkshire really is rather distinct, and different to anywhere else in the whole of Britain.

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Tick tock

In which the ancient Greeks can calculate

In the news recently: the Antikythera Mechanism, a cunning ancient device which, it turns out, could predict planetary positions and eclipses. It was first discovered around a hundred years ago, but it has always been little-known. Partly, I’m sure, because of the domination of Greek archaeology by classisists and historians. The Antikythera mechanism is unique, and its purpose unclear without careful analysis, so it’s not too surprising that for most of the time since its discovery it lurked, little-known, in an Athens museum.

Around 1980, Richard Feynman wrote about the mechanism, in a letter to his family:

Amongst all those art objects [in the museum] there was one thing so entirely different and strange that it is nearly impossible. It was recovered from the sea in 1900 and is some kind of machine with gear trains, very much like the inside of a modern wind-up alarm clock. The teeth are very regular and many wheels are fitted closely together. There are graduated circles and Greek inscriptions. I wonder if it is some kind of fake. There was an article on it in the Scientific American in 1959.

I asked the archaeologist lady about the machine in the museum—whether other similar machines, or simpler machines leading up to it or down from it, were ever found—but she hadn’t heard of it. So I mer her … at the museum to show it to her. She required some explanation from me why I thought such a machine was interesting … but after a bit she believed maybe it was striking, and she took me to the back rooms of the museum—surely there were other examples, and she would get a complete bibliography. Well, there were no other examples, and the complete bibliography was a list of three articles (including the one in the Scientific American)—all by one man, an American from Yale!*

It’s not that surprising that the Antikythera mechanism was little-studied for a long period. It’s an anomaly, at least as far as surviving records go, and anomalies are often ignored if they can’t be made to match up with everything else. It’s disappointing to me, in fact, that often the only people to treat anomalous objects seriously are pseudoarchaeologists, who nearly always come up with ridiculous conclusions. Pseudoarchaeologists are often condescending to the past in their own special way – “these people were too primitive to do this! Aliens must have helped them!” – but in many ways traditional archaeology can be just as condescending, by sometimes hunting things it does not understand out of the way, because they’re inconvenient or too complex to understand.

* published in What Do You Care What Other People Think?, the second book of Feynman’s memoirs.

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Books I Haven’t Read (part six)

In which FP fails to read “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson

As I said last time this series popped up, it was originally supposed to be a bit more regular than this. This entry, too, feels slightly like I’m repeating what I’ve said before. Not only is it a science fiction book like the last one, it’s by an author who has cropped up previously. Today’s Book I Haven’t Read is Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

I’m not sure what it is about Stephenson books that makes them hard to get through on the first attempt. I certainly didn’t have any problem with the first one I read, Cryptonomicon, but for some reason the others have gone past much more slowly.

It’s not that it isn’t a good book; it’s just that it demands to be read slowly. The terminology, the language, the realised world, all demand effort on the reader’s part. I’m a lazy reader, especially if I’m reading last thing at night; the book was too difficult to make me care about it.

Now, I’m reading it again, as a lunchbreak book instead of an evening book. And, I’m appreciating the start of it much more on second reading. There are awkward passages; but not enough to distract a SF almost-novice. It’s a fast-moving book; which conflicts with its density. It’s still not an easy read, but this time I think I’m going to finish it.

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Ravens (part two)

In which we consider myths of the literal and the figurative

(read part one here)

I thought I’d better get around to finishing this post off, because the Tower Of London ravens are in the news again. Now that bird flu has started to make its way into Western Europe, the Ravenmaster is getting ready to move his birds into the top-quality indoor aviary mentioned previously, and the story is making its way into all the papers.* We can’t have the ravens dying on us; the fate of the country isn’t at stake.

Except, though, that the idea that the fate of the nation depends on the Tower’s ravens is all a big misunderstanding. The myth isn’t about living ravens at all. The real myth is that the fate of the nation depends on the raven god staying at the Tower. Furthermore, according to some, he already left.

The closest we have to the original superstition is in medieval Welsh myth. In Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, part of the Mabinogion, the hero Bran – “Raven” – is mortally wounded in a battle with the Irish. He tells his companions to cut off his head, and bury it on Tower Hill. The head stays alive for 87 years, but eventually the spell is broken, and they do as they were told:

[The followers of Bran] could not rest but journeyed forth with the head towards London. And they buried the head in the White Mount, and when it was buried, this was the third goodly concealment; and it was the third ill-fated disclosure when it was disinterred, insamuch as no invasion from across the sea came to this island while the head was in that concealment.**

The Iron Age people of Western Europe were big on heads and head cults. Stone heads have been found buried at various archaeological sites, and this passage is the best evidence we have as to why they were buried: they were protective talismans. Clearly, the writers of the Mabinogion believed in their power, too. They have to explain why the Welsh lost control of south-eastern Britain, when the raven god’s head was protecting them from invasion. Answer: the English only managed to invade after the head was removed. The blame for this is placed on King Arthur, who, not being superstitious himself, deliberately dug the head up in the hope of making his armies try harder. It worked, whilst Arthur himself was around; but after his death, Britain fell to the English.***

So, in short, the Tower Ravens might be a twisted survival of an ancient Welsh myth. The modern version of the story doesn’t appear in print, though, until the late 19th century, well after the Celtic Revival, and well after the Mabinogion had been published in English. Furthermore, the original story is that the promised fall of the nation has already happened; and England is the country that replaced it. If the Tower’s ravens do all leave one day, we English don’t have much to worry about; we are the people they were meant to be protecting the country from in the first place.

* and a lot of people are searching the web and coming here for more information.

** From the Charlotte Guest translation of the Mabinogion available from Project Gutenberg.

*** This part of the story isn’t in the Mabinogion; I’m taking it from Mythology Of The British Isles by Geoffrey Ashe.

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