I’m not sure why this popped into my head, possibly the fever caused by yet another sodding sinus infection, but I found myself musing about South Street Long Barrow while trying to get to sleep. You know, as you do.

I’ve long been troubled by the idea that those scratches are ard marks providing evidence of agriculture. In the first place, I think that if you are looking at a ground surface under a monument, all bets are off. It’s not ‘normal’ land.

This evening’s delusion, however, was that perhaps those scratches were analogous to scratch-and-slip pottery joints, and that they scored the surface to make the monument stick better.

Time for some paracetamol, I think.

Written on March 2nd, 2011 , Musings

When I mention that I’m interested in archaeology, the first question I’m generally asked is ‘found any treasure yet?’. Words cannot express the blazing fury that lights me from within. It’s such a common misunderstanding of what archaeology is. But an understandable one, given the popularity of Time Team.

But what is archaeology? Yes, I know the standard definition, study of material remains of the past, etc etc. But what is it?

To me, it is everything. It is the need to know everything about who and what we are, where we have come from, why we are how we are at this point in time, rather than the infinite other possibilities. It’s the understanding of how humans react and function, live and die. It’s why the landscape looks the way it does, why our modern cities are where they are. It’s why political borders are where they are, why parts of the Earth are fertile and bountiful and others are barren and wasted. It’s why we speak the languages we do, why we believe the things we believe. It’s everything.

For me, archaeology is the one course of study that encompasses almost all others. I’m learning about geology, materials science, chemistry, metallurgy, agriculture, weather systems, boatbuilding, psychology and probably many other subjects that I haven’t even noticed.

For me, archaeology is the study of the whys of human existence. Excuse me, I have a lot of reading to do…

Written on January 17th, 2011 , Musings

Whenever I read anything about how a monument is aligned towards the rising sun on the Winter Solstice, or some other such mystic arrangement, I do find myself wondering how that was achieved. Unless there’s a secret stash of prehistoric timepieces that the archaeologists haven’t interpreted the bejesus out of yet, I’m not sure how one’s aware of how short the day is.

I’d be more willing to believe in an alignment to something a little more tangible, like the direction of the sun on the day an important person was born, or died, or when the people first came to these lands. Or perhaps the one day of the year when the sun pokes its head above a certain rock on the horizon. That I can believe in.

I can’t help this: I design software and processes that have to be implemented. That means that for everything I dream up, I have to provide a mechanism for it happening before I can incorporate it.

I’m thinking if any kind of observations resulted in these alignments, stars other than our local one would be of more assistance. I reckon it would be much easier to line things up when the stars got into a certain position, and perhaps this just might turn out to be the shortest day. Everyone knows that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten. Or something.

I guess this post is a mental note to find out more about this if possible. So far I’ve read about these magical alignments, but nothing I’ve read has explained a mechanism for them coming into being, so either it’s supposed to be self-evident and I’m an idiot (no-one would be less surprised than me), or no-one has explained it. Enquiring minds need to know..

Written on January 5th, 2011 , Musings Tags: ,

Reading some ‘facts’ I know now to be lies, it struck me how familiar it feels to be attempting to make any sense at all out of all the words that previous archaeologists have committed to posterity.

My job as an analyst/tester seems to mostly consist of keeping up with the new version of the Truth as it evolves; every slight change of plan requires umpteen documents to be updated and new tests devised to ensure that the new Truth makes it into the final system okay.

Compare that to reading quite a lot of quite similar but subtly different opinions, based on various subjective experiences of interpreting what they think they’ve found. Add trends and fashions in interpretation and theory, and improvements in technology into the mix and, frankly, you’re doomed. I think perhaps the only answer is to read the materials in the order they were written, and layer on understanding as it dawned on the authors.

It’s either that, or go mad.


I’ve often commented, in my work as an analyst, that people don’t really seem to know why they perform certain actions. When trying to establish what the software I’m designing needs to do, I’ll sit and watch a User at work, generally to find out what they’re not telling me. What I find is that people will happily perform a sequence of actions to carry out a process, but when you stop and question a step, they have no idea why it is necessary or how it came about.

People perform these daily rituals without questioning; they have somehow learned the steps to take to obtain a desired outcome, yet the steps themselves become almost mechanical. Often I’ll find a new User who has written these steps down in their notebook, so that they can unquestioningly follow them without assistance.

I’m forever being told that ritual and everyday activity were not separate in prehistory; there was no concept of ‘church on Sunday’ and every part of your daily life was imbued with some kind of mystic significance.

I’m not sure, in my ignorance, how to distinguish the mystic from the mundane. For me, mundane activities are about getting a task done; does it matter that in order to do that task you have to perform a certain ritual that might be classed as mystic? Certain rites may be considered instrumental in getting something done, and the instructions in the notebook tell you what to do, but never why. The rituals then represent an encoded instruction set.

Could it be that things that have become stylised, purely symbolic steps, started out with a mis-copied instruction for performing a task. I can readily accept that such mis-copyings are much easier to make when the instructions are not written down.

Without science to provide an explanation for the observable state of the world around you, it is natural for the human imagination to supply the stories that allow it to make sense. These stories then inform the understanding of how the tasks need to be done. Subsequence generations can add embellishments and improvements to enhance the effectiveness of the step, until you lose sight of what the thing was in the first place.

Such superstitions are not confined to the distant past: it is well known that part of the recovery process for dealing with a salt spill is to throw some over your shoulder. Not everyone knows the ‘reason’ for this action (apparently to hit the devil in the eye) but the action still remains. It is only when the reason gets questioned, that the action can be deleted from the sequence.

I’ve often wondered how superstitions and rituals get started; the optimist in me hopes that what is left is a miscopying of something that was originally quite sensible. A black cat crossing your path would be unlucky if it were your landlord’s cat and you hit it with your cart. If people forgot the detail and just remembered that it was a black cat crossing your path, then this makes sense to me.

In a similar way, things that look like bizarre rituals can be explained with science and reason. Burying a fish under a rose bush might look like madness or some crazy heathen offering to the rose gods, but actually we know that the goodness from the fish is just what roses like in order to flourish.

In a similar way, I can’t help wondering if all the actions we assign to ‘ritual’ (as we can’t explain them) can be traced back to sensible origins and have just been altered, or we forgot what the original task was that the ritual was the encoded instruction set for.

Written on December 27th, 2010 , Musings

Faced with the problem of too much input we automatically, it seems, start to deal with it by creating a system of classification. Somehow, being able to say ‘this is an x’ makes us feel that we know more about it. Being able to label something seems somehow to give us power over it. Classifying and defining something assimilates that thing into the known universe, in an orderly fashion.

Personally, I feel this only has value in archaeology if the person who created the purported ‘x’, had x-ness in mind at the time. What if it was a ‘y’ that went wrong? What if an x is a y that’s been used for 50 years and changed shape? What if an x is in fact a y, but just made by different people who had a different idea about how to do the task that y was a solution for?

How do we know that what we classify as similar today, was considered similar then? Similarity is defined by attributes having similar values. But people I consider as similar to each other, generally aren’t considered so by other people, so maybe similar can be different. Perhaps the attributes that I pick out and compare aren’t those that are picked by other people. Perhaps what’s important now when making comparisons isn’t the same as what’s important then.

The other problem with categorisation, I feel, is that it gives things edges. Once we’ve defined the box that something fits within, we forget that the box was a convenient mechanism, a model for understanding, and start to treat it like it was a real thing.

It always amused me, the idea of ‘Bronze Age’, the ‘Iron Age’ and so on. They are neat divisions of technological progression and are used to carve up time into chunks that we can talk about. But at the beginning of the Bronze Age, it wasn’t an orderly switchover, like the change to digital television. It can’t have been. People are far too human for that. So the edges are fuzzy. And what about places that never saw bronze at all, or not for a long time? Do they have their own personal Bronze Age?

In my day job, I’m very user-focussed, so I spend a lot of time considering what people are trying to achieve. I find, when designing new processes, or introducing new systems, that people’s behaviour quickly tends to follow the path of least resistance. Anything that’s overcomplicated gets worked around, or ignored. The thing that is most likely to happen, will happen. Where there are things that are equally as likely, you get a mixture of both. Things rarely polarise into extremes of their own accord.

What has this got to do with archaeology? Well, when considering invasion theory, or diffusion, or other means of technological change and progression, I can’t help feeling that whatever required the least effort, or co-ordination, or unlikely circumstances, is going to be the most likely to have happened. It’s hard enough getting a group of 9 friends to go out for a meal, using modern communication mechanisms and modern transport. I can’t begin to imaging how hard it would be to plan an invasion. But then, I’m not that organised.

But the word invasion, is in itself a box, and I’m making all sorts of assumptions about what that would mean and how it would have taken place. Sometimes, I think that shortcutting the descriptive process by using a single word, hides a lot of necessary complexity. By forcing ourselves to think about what we are describing longhand, we open our minds to other possibilities and get away from the need to label.

Written on November 25th, 2010 , Musings

In the current era, change seems never-ending and relentless. Technology that was new yesterday is obsolete tomorrow. We embrace and welcome change. It can be easy, therefore, to assume that this attitude was always the case: where there was an obvious improvement available, it would be taken up immediately and without question. It is easy to experiment when you have no lack of resources; a catastrophic failure in the experiment will not mean starvation for you and your village. To reject a way of life that has served your family for generations innumerable would be a great leap, and there was no mass media to tell you to do it.

I can’t help but think then, that although the Neolithic ‘package’ spread throughout Europe, the uptake of farming in individual cases would have taken some crisis event to provoke the change, if you view the issue in purely economic terms. It may be that the initial forays into agriculture were special ritual crops for special purposes – a low-risk test of the crazy new ideas. If the gods smiled favourably on these offerings, perhaps the idea had some merit after all. These special crops may only have required periodic effort and so did not require that the farmer become fixed in one area. The well-understood pattern of foraging and hunting could continue, with the episodic return to the crop as part of the seasonal nomadism.

I view this experimentation with the growing of crops is part of the overall package of increased interaction with the land and soil. It probably started gradually and cautiously: a few shallow pits dug with trepidation and hastily filled with offerings, but then progressed to ever more bold statements about their relationship with, and power over, the land.

For me, the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition is this change in attitude towards the earth: the growing confidence with which man interacts with and shapes the very land he lives on. I view farming as the natural result of a growing affinity for the soil, rather than as an economic tool. The act of settling and binding yourself to a particular area can only performed with the confidence that the soil is understood and your place on it defined and negotiated.

Pottery is a natural extension of this relationship; one of the series of transactions that defines the connection between man and his environment. Extracting clay (and flint and other subterranean resources) from the earth is the reward, and the balance, for the offerings placed into the earth.

This increasing confidence and understanding of the nature of soil culminated in the vision and daring to construct large and expressive monuments, and to force a design of their own creation upon the landscape.

Written on November 11th, 2010 , Musings Tags: ,

Those of you that also read my day-job ponderings at Knowledgescape, will have suffered through my pontifications upon requirements analysis. I’m quite keen at isolating what I call Truths from the morass of Wishes, Laws and outright Lies.

The urge to apply the same approach to archaeology has led me to ponder about the nature of Truths that can’t be tested. Guided by the admirable Matthew Johnson, I’ve come to realise that there is no real way to empathically connect with the past. Any interpretations we make are the result of the knowledge and experience (and quite often the fanciful imaginations) of the present. Faced with this bleak picture, where do you start?
Right where I’d start with requirements analysis: ‘how do we know this is a property of the system we are describing?’

I’m reluctantly willing to accept that archaeology is never going to give me 100% Truth, and that the trick is to work out, based on dispassionate assessment of the available evidence, what the closest approximation to the Truth is likely to be. What a terrifying proposition.

I’m a great fan of probability, and my brief dabble in chemistry (at A level) has left me with the feeling that human reactions can be viewed very much like chemical reactions: anything that takes less energy input to start the reaction is more likely to occur. I paraphrase, it was a long time ago! But this means that I have great difficulty imagining invasions of Beaker people changing the face of society in one fell swoop, but am more sanguine about believing that an idea was introduced and spread through example and eventually custom.

Written on October 26th, 2010 , Musings Tags: , , ,

I’m currently (mostly) utterly absorbed in Matthew Johnson’s excellent ‘Archaeological Theory: An Introduction’ , but have stopped, as is my wont, to ponder a little. It’s all very well using current-day hunter-gathers as a kind of living experimental archaeology, but why has our society moved away from that method of subsistence? How did that happen here and not there?

Those who know me, know that I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about population density and growth and its effects on various things. Not, I hasten to add, based on anything scientific, or any knowledge, but just an instinctive feeling that the number of humans that interacts together is important. Largely based on ideas from chemistry and physics, but also based on how people differ when put in groups to think things through together.
It started me wondering if innovation and change are a result of human interaction: whether jealousies, friction and, above all, discussion are required to interrupt the equilibrium of an otherwise stable situation. I certainly know from my own experience that umpteen daft ideas pop into my head per day, and that I use social interaction to evaluate the worth of these ideas (my friends tell me not to be so daft). This interaction stops me wasting time on the ideas that will not lead anywhere, leaving me more time to think about the ones that might. I’m actively using people as a technique for forced evolution of ideas.

I don’t think it’s a co-incidence that the best method I’ve found for refining an idea or design is to *play* with it. Children play instinctively and without external influence. Imagination and creativity is what allows their developing mind to understand and make room for what they have learned, and to find uses for it. Playing lets you test out scenarios and ideas, without risk of rejection or derision as it is understood that you are ‘only playing’. But really successful play requires the interaction between people (whether real or imaginary!); a solitary child will often¬†anthropomorphise¬†their toys in order to bring in the element of discussion and interaction, even if both sides ultimately derive from themselves. Playing at interaction also allows the development and testing of empathic behaviours.

I think it was the superlative Terry Pratchett who suggested that ideas flow through the universe, striking people’s minds at random. That’s as good an explanation as any I’ve heard for how ideas start. I’m more interested in how they spread. How does the notion to chip just a little bit more off the flint tool, just *there*, suddenly spread? How do they become accepted, common, and then the subject for future dissatisfaction and enhancement? Is it human nature to become bored of ideas and seek new ones, is it an indication of available leisure time to think, is it an indication of pressures within society that caused something to give? At this point in my education I have more questions than answers.

I normally approach an analysis task by constructing some characters that might be participating in the system, and how they might think and react. When analysing extinct societies, all bets are off. I can’t use my modern empathy to attempt to gauge motivating factors and thereby attempt to predict reactions. I just don’t have the same life experience as Neolithic man. So how do I work out how change might happen and be managed?

I caused myself fits of giggles at the bus stop this morning by imaging a conversation between a stone age innovator and the rest of his tribe. I had played to the typical stereotype of superstitious, gods-fearing, unsophisticated primitive man and therefore determined that any alteration to the Way Things Are Done would lead to ostracism and eventual banishment. My innovative friend moved off, to another tribe, where his innovations were welcomed as a gift from the gods, and my friend revered as having the powers to connect with the gods. Is this likely? Who knows. My foray into prehistoric empathy just served to demonstrate to me that I don’t have enough data to start writing user stories.

What started me on this rambling train of thought was the idea that it was isolation and therefore lack of external (to your tribe) influences that suppressed the human urge to innovate. If this *is* a human urge, perhaps that in itself is up for debate. If change is threatening (as it can be for modern humans), what factors would cause it to become nonthreatening and even welcome?

I’ve a long way to go before I can start thinking about this properly!

Written on October 22nd, 2010 , Musings Tags: , , ,

In the world of software anything that alters the behaviour of the software is change, whether it be a bugfix or a feature release. As an analyst and tester, my response is similar regardless of the type of change. I define what is required, entrust a developer to carry out the work, then test to see that it was done to my exacting standards.

When it comes to archaeological analysis, the subtle differences can appear more glaring, and it may seem possible, and indeed required, to deal with enhancements to a monument separately from overt changes.

To enhance something implies that it should be as it currently is, only more so; the original design can be made more perfect by adjustments. Note that this doesn’t necessarily imply that the use of the monument carried on exactly as before. Certainly in software terms, I catch people asking for small enhancements that, when I question it, will allow the existing functionality to be ‘misused’ for another purpose entirely. This doesn’t replace the previous use, but expands the repertoire of occasions on which the functionality can be used. I wonder if the same is true of enhancements to monuments: “An extra lump here and we can use it for weddings as well.”

A change, I would characterise as something that put the monument beyond its original use, whatever that was. Whatever it did for people before, was not needed now and perhaps the monument needed to be altered enough that it could never be used that way again. Think the smashing of the megaliths at Avebury: “We’ll have none of your heathen rituals here, thank ye”.

I don’t imagine for one moment that such destructive behaviour is limited to more modern times; what better way to subdue your neighbour than to deprive him of access to his gods, or take away the means to ensure that the harvest succeeds.

Written on October 19th, 2010 , Musings

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