Reconstructing the urban past

Friday, August 24, 2012

Reconstructing the urban past: (a) excavated plan of the Wytelard property, Monkgate, Hull in the early to mid-fourteenth century (after Armstrong and Ayers 1987, Figure 31); (b) the archaeologist’s reconstruction of the building based on the plan and on standing buildings of the period (East Riding Archaeological Society)

An imaginative reconstruction of Roman Canterbury in its heyday, looking west with the theatre in the centre, temple upper right and public baths lower right (drawn by J.A.Bowen, Canterbury Archaeological Trust)

It often comes as a surprise to the general public that archaeologists do not spend all their time digging, and that much more time—and money— is spent in the office or laboratory writing up the results of fieldwork. As research methods and analytical techniques have improved and archaeologists have become more ambitious about what can be discovered, the ‘post-excavation’ process has become more and more expensive and time-consuming, and the comprehensiveness expected of archaeological reports is now much greater than it has ever been. This is not to say that reports produced in the early years of field archaeology were necessarily poor, rather that they often suffered from a lack of resources of both a financial and technical nature.

However much one might, on occasions, agree with its sentiments, it would, none the less, be difficult for an archaeologist today to offer as an excuse for a report’s shortcomings that once used by Wheeler:

The mechanical, predictable, quality of Roman craftsmanship, the advertised humanitas of Roman civilisation, which lay always so near to brutality and corruption, fatigued and disgusted me so that my Verulamium report fell short in some parts of its record.

In Wheeler’s defence, of course, one could say that few archaeologists today are able to write with the gusto, style and imagination of the great man. Indeed, anyone expecting a good read out of the modern archaeological site report will probably be disappointed. The reason is that, very properly reports have as their primary function the presentation of information on strata, finds and so forth which is often of a very detailed and specialist nature. The production of such a report with its accumulation of facts is, however, not the end of the archaeologist’s work. The final step is to interpret these facts, to infuse them with some meaning so that we may gain a new understanding of the past.

A fundamental aspect of the process of interpretation is the reconstruction of the physical environment in the past, either in the form of an individual structure or the entire townscape. There are a number of illustrations which show how effective the reconstruction of buildings is as a means of interpretation, but the exercise is not without problems, since it is rare for a buried urban structure to survive in such good condition as the twelfth century merchant’s house recently excavated at St Martin-at-Palace-Plain in Norwich. More often than not structural remains are extremely vestigial, existing, perhaps, as walls which are largely demolished, patchy floor surfaces and a few post holes. Occasionally there are below-ground features, such as cellars or garderobe pits, and even more occasionally such superstructural elements as collapsed walls and roofs. It is often impossible, therefore, to come to valid conclusions about a building’s original plan, let alone its overall appearance and function. Should sufficient survive, however, archaeologists may employ not only the excavated evidence itself as a basis for reconstruction, but also analogues in the form of surviving buildings of the period which appear to share common features with the buried example. The existence of useful analogues, of course, varies considerably. At one end of the scale there are, for instance, quite a number of major Roman public buildings still standing in the former empire, so that it is possible to reconstruct the theatre at Canterbury or forum at London with some degree of confidence. Similarly, later medieval timber-framed and stone-built houses, albeit principally of the upper classes, survive in some numbers, allowing valid reconstructions of excavated examples. At the other end of the scale, however, are the dwellings of the mass of population of all the periods covered in this book, which are the most commonly excavated, but of which few if any examples survive. Interpreting their remains inevitably brings the archaeological imagination more strongly into play, but, whether there are analogues to help or not, the archaeologist who would attempt the reconstruction of buildings must also become something of an architect and civil engineer, and acquire some understanding of the load-bearing capacities of timbers of particular sizes, methods of supporting roofs and so on.

When we move from reconstruction of overall structure and external appearance of buildings to that of their internal appearance, similar approaches apply. Archaeological evidence relates, of course, primarily to features at ground level, and one of the most common discoveries is the hearth, which may simply be an area of burnt clay or a more solid brick or stone-built structure. The detailed examination of internal surfaces by modern archaeological techniques can, however, allow the plotting of both formal divisions of space by walls and other partitions, and less formal divisions revealed by the distribution of distinctive artefacts and wear patterns on the floors.

Archaeological remains of furniture and fittings are more elusive than walls and floors. Not only were they made of perishable material, primarily wood or textile, but they were usually removed before buildings were abandoned or demolished. We must hope, therefore, for the remains of disasters, fires or sudden collapse, which took the inhabitants by surprise such that they left their possessions behind, as in the case of a bed burnt in Boudicca’s attack on Colchester. The use of analogy with standing buildings to reconstruct interiors in the past is difficult since the latter are more sensitive to changing social needs. The use of rooms and fashions in decor may change frequently while the basic structure remains the same.

While reconstructing the physical appearance of early towns—their buildings, streets, defences and so forth—absorbs much of the urban archaeologist’s time, we must also remember that, in the well-known words of Mortimer Wheeler, ‘the archaeological excavator is not digging up things, he is digging up people’. From the remains of buildings, their surroundings and associated artefacts and organic finds, urban archaeologists try to create as vivid a picture as possible of townsmen and townswomen in the past as they went about their daily lives sheltering and feeding themselves, caring for their children, making a living and, of course, dumping their refuse. We may also glimpse leisure hours spent carving bone, playing musical instruments, gambling on board games and enjoying the company of pets. Finally we can gain some insight into religious beliefs, from-day-to-day superstition, which might involve the burial of a pot under the floor of a Roman building, to sophisticated theology manifested in the organisation of an Anglo- Saxon cathedral.

Although the scope of archaeology to reveal the past is great and increasing, this chapter should not be concluded without reminding the reader that the nature of the evidence constrains archaeology to be primarily concerned with men and women as communal and social beings. It is rare that it can tell us about a particular named historical personality in any detail. Of course it is exciting when an inscription or artefact allows this, but by and large archaeology is about the people who do not figure in the history books, in short it is about the lives of people like you (probably) and me.


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