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Sunday, 8 March 2015

The Archaeological Artifice



I have touched on the matter of the "archaeological artifice" before -- and have been thinking about this again today.  It all came back into my mind when I was sorting out some photos to do with Rhosyfelin.

http://brian-mountainman.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/how-to-manufacture-neolithic-quarry.html

How many ordinary people are aware that when archaeologists, with infinite care, use their little trowels to scrape away fine sediments and leave behind the big bits, they are creating something which can become a pretty vast distortion of reality?  I hope the archaeologists are themselves aware of this danger.........

When you look at the above photo, it's easy for a gullible member of the public to think:  "My goodness!  That looks just like a quarry -- look at the quarried face and all those bits that the quarrymen have removed, just lying there in a big pile, waiting to be sorted out and taken away....."

Actually there never was a natural rock face that looked like this, and this scene never existed in the real world.  When the site was first excavated, there were trees and shrubs everywhere, and a proper mess that the archaeologists, in their wisdom, decided to "tidy up."  This is what it all actually looked like when some of the shrubs had been removed to give access to the accumulated material:


One has to admire the meticulous and fastidious fashion in which the "rubbish" has been removed, leaving only the "significant" stones to be photographed and mapped using the best techniques available.  But the assumption seems to be that the debris is inconvenient and has to be got rid of, and that the bigger stones are important enough to remain in place so as to be examined.  To the right of the top photo, off the picture, there is a huge mound made of all the excavated material........ out of sight and out of mind.

Is there an assumption that the big and convenient stones got there first, as a result of quarrying activities, and that the finer "inconvenient" material then somehow came along later on, covering it all over and filling in all the gaps?

I have also been worried by the "surfaces" which have been spoken of at various stages of the Rhosyfelin dig.  Now in a sequence of sediments surfaces can and do exist, where a soft black layer for example gives way to a hard red layer.  Archaeologists often stop scraping when they get down to a junction, and by stripping away everything above it, they can reveal what might at one time have been the ground surface.  But there is also a great danger that a surface can be invented or created, with archaeologists saying "Ah, in our wisdom we deem there to be some sort of change going on here in the sediment sequence, and we therefore deem it to be a surface."  In the real world, extensive surfaces do not all get covered by newer deposits simultaneously -- bits and pieces may be covered by sedimentation today, leaving other bits exposed until they are covered by some rockfall or other event in maybe hundreds or thousands of years' time.

Sorry guys, but the sequence of events in the real world are much more complex than you like to imagine.  There have been natural slope processes, rockfalls, accumulation events, degradation events, and interference from vegetation here on this site for maybe 20,000 years, and nice photos of a "manufactured quarry", and meticulously drawn plans and diagrams (which we will no doubt soon see in print) do not alter that fact.


19 comments:

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Brian,

... really now, shouldn't we expect some dirt to be uncovered with archeological sites?

I fail to see your point with this post!

Kostas

TonyH said...

Surely, the problem that the archaeologists have when it comes to digging at what they consider to be "Quarry Sites" is their vast inexperience!! They simply have not identified enough proven quarry sites, have they?

I suppose one would have to go world - wide to ascertain just how many have been successfully identified as previously unknown quarry sites. Can't imagine there are many in the U.K. and Ireland.

Dave Maynard said...

In my experience (5 or 6 sites with 'quarries'), things that are thought to be quarries have a pretty low significance. They are not much excavated because of the lack of usable information to be retrieved and the huge amount of material to be shifted. I can't think off-hand of many excavations of quarries, possibly quarry pits alongside Roman roads. There will be some in the records.

I have come across pits later in date than the main period of a settlement thought of of as destructive of the earlier information, so given less attention. There were also quarry pits earlier, or contemporary with the first phases of a site, which are filled with material related to later use, so given a lot more attention.

With our developer funded excavations, there would be little justification for much work on a 'quarry', the same would apply to private funded work. Of course the picture changes if the quarry appears to be a significant and possibly unique site!

Dave

Myris of Alexandria said...

How much material has been removed from The Great Orme, Cwmstwyth.
Excavated quarries are common, it is the lack of mauls that is worrying.
M

BRIAN JOHN said...

I thought the Great Orme was the site of a mine, not a quarry?

TonyH said...

In the days before Health And Safety Acts, my parents ENCOURAGED me to go and play in a disused quarry just down the road from Our House* (a very very very nice house....).

My main memory is nettle stings as a consequence of poorly - selected slopes for slides. My brother and I also took our bikes onto a reclaimed coalpit site - superb undulating terrain, and great views.

* Copyright Graham Nash

Myris of Alexandria said...

The Great Orme has an opencast aka quarry.
There s a whole subset of archaeometallurgy devoted to quarry, drift, and deepish underground mining. Even in Britain.
By see what has been done in matching porphyry to Mons Claudiana down river.

Myris of Alexandria said...

Senior moment Mons Claudianus
Match columns to quarry faces.
M

BRIAN JOHN said...

Info about Mons Claudianus here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mons_Claudianus

But I'm not sure what a Roman quarry in Egypt tells us about either the British Neolithic or an outcrop of rock in West Wales.....

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Brian,

"But I'm not sure what a Roman quarry in Egypt tells us about either the British Neolithic or an outcrop of rock in West Wales....."

The Roman quarry in Egypt tells us we need to have clear and convincing evidence on the ground to tell us it is a Roman quarry.

And that tells us what is the problem with "the British Neolithic or an outcrop of rock in west Wales".

Kostas

TonyH said...

Appropriately enough, the much - admired Cranborne Chase - based archaeologist, General PITT - Rivers, excavated the then mysterious Pen Pits, which lie near the Wiltshire - Dorset - Somerset border, a mile or two south of Stourhead Estate's much - visited National Trust landscaped gardens and lakes.

Pitt - Rivers discovered that the Norman castle at Castle Orchard had been superimposed on the pits, proving them to be at least pre - Norman.

What is a large square - shaped piece of table - land, with steep sides, has the village of Penselwood. On the slope, facing east, has the Pen Pits. In 1887 these pits covered 100 acres. But it was said that,in living memory, they had spread also over the platform, covering altogether 700 acres, a vast number having been filled in and levelled for agricultural use.

Pen Pits are now generally recognised to be quarries from which quern stones for grinding corn by hand were obtained. Pottery sherds found at the site indicate a Romano - British date for these quarries.

I haven't visited them as yet.I imagine that Salisbury Museum may well have displays and finds from Pen Pits, as it certainly has a lot about General Pitt - Rivers.

See also Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine, Volume 23, 1887, article by Canon Jackson.

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Tony,

This is very interesting! Thanks, as always, for all the info you introduce in this blog.

I am a little puzzled how pits covering some 700 acres would be called quarries. What is the reasoning for this conclusion? If you know ...

The other puzzling fact is the findings of all these Romano-British pottery sherds. But no whole pots, broken or intact, at one site. Such pottery sherds (but no pots) seem to pop up in many places. Strange!

Kostas

TonyH said...

The Pen Pits quarries consisted of greenstone. I do wonder whether the early arrival of the Romans in this vicinity after their invasion of A.D. 43 may explain the large scale nature of the pit workings, even if some of them pre - date the Romans. The Romans were very keen to secure the Mendip lead mines and were proceeding from the south coast towards the Mendips and then east.

TonyH said...

Vespasian was the Commander of the Roman forces in this part of the South - West. Not that long afterwards he became Roman Emperor and was deified for his efforts, so he clearly did a good job.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Kostas -- the point of this post is that the very process of conducting an archaeological dig can lead to false conclusions. Archaeologists like to find surfaces and floors which allow them to identify occupation phases or cultures. For example, Prof MPP has referred to such "floors" in his talks on Rhosyfelin. This is all very well when you know that a human settlement site has been buried. Think Skara Brae, Jarlshof, Pompeii, Herculaneum. Basic history: (1) man-made features linked with a settlement history, and (2) abandonment of the site and burial beneath sediments. The work at Rhosyfelin seems to assume that the stones got there first (during a Neolithic quarrying phase) and that the finer sediments which surround them came along later. So the sands and silts are cleared away, leaving an untidy assemblage of stones which is assumed to be somehow "arranged" and somehow "significant" although the rockfall debris of all sizes is in fact pretty randomly distributed through the sediments on the flank of the rock. Very dangerous......

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Thanks Tony/Brian for your explanations.

So MPP created an "artifice" out of a natural feature! And thus having to make up stories to make up his artifice.

"Artifice and stories" go together like "love and marriage".

Kostas

BRIAN JOHN said...

I'm not accusing MPP of evil intent! Far be it from me to suggest such ta thing. What I am saying is that it's easy for archaeologists to become so absorbed in the dig process that they fail to realise that they are "inventing" a landscape or an occupation history. They would not do that, I suggest, if they had some basic understanding of geomorphology.

T said...

And I have stated before on this Blog that Mike PP said to me (whilst we were working on a Wiltshire dig) that he had considered doing Geography, rather than Archaeology, at University (incidentally, he apparently got a First at Southampton Uni). Let's hope he keeps his eye on University of Cambridge's Geography Department's hoped - for research into glacial evidence in the Bristol Channel, intended to start this autumn, 2015. Brian did a Post on this a few months ago.

TonyH said...

That comment just submitted was from me, albeit it says just "T".