Sunday, March 11, 2018

One, Two, Many '48s: Somewhere Between a Technical Appendix and a Sacred Spring Installment

Von David Hawgood, CC BY-SA 2.0,
This Irish National Heritage Park exhibit is a reconstruction of a "Fulacht Fiadh," or cooking pit. About 8000 are known in Ireland, and are characterised by mounds of broken stone and charcoal, adjacent to a trapezoidal wooden trough. The "cooking pit" interpretation sees them as locations where venison was cooked by stewing, using fire-heated stones to maintain water temperature. In Britain, the same features are known as "burnt mounds," signifying a more agnostic take on their likely ancient use. Scandinavian exemplars are sometimes seen as saunas. In Britain and Scandinavia, burnt mounds are a phenomena of the Bronze Age, with dates clustering around 1500BC and 1200--800BC. German Wikipedia has a more complete writeup than the English-language version

So far, so good. This is a placeholder posting. I was led to the "burnt mound" problem by Niall Sharples, but I can't say that I've digested Sharples, never mind finishing his monograph. That's because I have been working on the Postblogging Technology, January 1948, II; but after losing a day to an overtime shift, I've had to concede that there is no chance of finishing it tomorrow. You will have to wait for my report on the debate between Ernest K. Lindley and Henry Hazlitt on the Marshall Plan, in which Lindley vainly attempts to explain economics to the author of Economics in One Easy Lesson, while Hazlitt stubbornly insists that there is no chance of the Plan working, on account of the Europeans being collectivist socialists and all, and that it would be better to save the money and use it for tax cuts. There is, in fact, in January of 1948, something of a full-court press on for tax cuts, or at least an attempt to head off tax increases, on the grounds that they will cut into business investment. Since Robert Taft has boarded this bandwagon, it is not entirely clear whether partisanship is driving ideas; or ideas, partisanship. What we do know is that arch-internationalist GOP Senator Arthur Vandenberg will soon drop Taft and begin promoting MacArthur's candidacy. It's a weird old world.  

Lindley's argument, which you've heard before in these pages, is that without the Marshall Plan, Europe will go Red. The Economist has already been there, announcing that 1948, "The Year of Revolutions," was nothing special, and neither will be 1948. As it happens, 1848 was the year of The Communist Manifesto, and 1948 will be the Year of the Berlin Airlift. It's an interesting conjunction, although you'd have to be a pretty desperate blogger to make a connection between the Communist revolution and  the practice of adding soda ash to the smelt to produce higher-quality steel and trying to carry it back to the beginnings of the Iron Age. 

Well, it's Saturday night before time change, and I'm working at 9, so here we are.

So it turns out that Mathieson's version of the history of soda ash in ironmaking is a bit incomplete. There was not, in fact, a three thousand year period in which ironfounders stood around wondering how they might "practically" add soda ash to their smelt to remove "sulfur and oxides." Soda ash furnaces are better known from the smelting of lead, silver and even copper, but there have been plenty of proposals for using a soda ash chamber in an iron smelter to remove sulfur and phosphorus. Mathieson is less obviously wrong about whether it was practical to use soda ash other than in briquettes; but, again, the question arises as to whether it, in fact, invented soda ash briquettes. The "Purite" trademark has certainly lapsed. It may also be irrelevant, in that the parallel practice of adding lime to the ladle is well-attested. 

However! Bert Hall liked to point out that metalworking authors often emphasised the use of particular kinds of wood in wood smelting tools, and speculate that there were chemical reasons for selecting them. So there you go, Bert. A reason for using wood from halophytic plants in your old-time smithy or foundry. Whether it's operative or not, the moral of the story remains simple. Anyone who wants to write about old-time metallurgy should probably read The Shaping, Treatment and Making of Steel first. As to my own ignorance of the agro-industrial chemistry of alkali-making,one can only hope that there is an equivalent for old-time soap-and-glassmakers out there. 

This helpful infographic shows a burnt mound on the slopes of Talon How ridge, from a study by Alex Loktionov, posted in full on a free student-run archaeological journal. The article also has a nice introduction of the phenomena. 

None of this would seem to have anything to do at all with burnt mounds. The most recent and thorough study of them does see the mound ashes as being, sometimes, byproducts of soda production, but not for metalworking. The Irish burnt mounds are found in lowlying wetlands, at the base of hills, and at some distance from residences. Archaeobotanical evidence shows the collection of plants typically used for dying wool, and the combination of ash, heat and plenty of water suggests industrial-scale textiles cleaning. (Before the soap industry, ash was used to introduce sodium ions into the cleaning water, where boiling it with the greasy wool produced the necessary saponifying agent.

I've previously quoted from some old Greek play that some people get all worked up about. At this point I will look at some more Culture, and summon up the image of three female knowledge-workers stirring a cauldron on a blasted heath, adding one marsh-area biota as they supply useful political knowledge to a local elite figure in a ritual context. 

That's the Irish case. The Loktionov study is in line with the Irish findings, but, in general, the"burnt mound" seems to  have mutated a bit as it passes into another national archaeological tradition. What I mean by that, drawing  on Sharples, is that "burnt mounds" show up that don't really seem to fit the more rigorous Irish criteria. Does that mean that they deviate from the criteria in other ways, or does the excavator have a new concept of "burnt mound" in mind? It is not obvious. 

This is the distribution of Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age settlements in the Kennet river valley area of Wiltshire, within Sharples' study area of "Wessex," even though the Kennet is a tributary of the Thames. (Personally, I think that this is cheating, and that the British should realign their historic regions to correspond with their intuitively related watersheds.)

This is the "burnt mound" that I'm making such a to-do over:

My issue is that it is far too close to the associated settlement. On the other hand, as is typical of LBA settlements down on the valley floors, the Reading Business Park settlement is "ephemeral." This is what you would expect of LBA people living on floodplains, but Sharples is not one to resort to vulgar functionalism when a more powerful, if perhaps flighty, interpretative model is available. 

Still, in the nature of this self-imposed-deadline-structured model of inquiry, I have to go where my engagement with the literature takes me right now. I'll point at the distance, ask whether anyone else sees Elvis, and pick up my markers later if I find they're not supportable. 

Anyway, Sharples sees the Bronze Age as a period in which people live in unenclosed settlements set within "field systems" that should not be seen functionally, but, rather, as the use of landscape modification to construct communities. He ties this system to metallurgy by proposing that bronze should not be understood functionally, either; but, first and foremost, as an embedded medium of gift exchange.  Society is organised by bronze exchange. Significantly, burials increase in number, and are often accompanied by grave goods, seen as evidence of social inequality. More importantly for Sharples, hoards increase in frequency, notably ones featuring bronze goods. This indicates, for him, social competition of a potlaching variety, as rivals demonstrate their power by destroying valuable goods, notably swords, which will stand in as well as anything as symbols of elite power. (Because spears work better for killing things, but can't be worn conveniently at the waist while you're walking around being important.)  

Bronze Age swords. Scraped from Pinterest, which sort of defeats the purpose of the service. I'm sorry. Uploaded by Cara Packwood.
The Early Iron Age sees people abandon the field systems and move into small, enclosed communities, while building hillforts as . . . something. Sharples is the latest of every-author-consulted-except-Barry-Cunliffe to react to Cunliffe's central place  model with an alternative. It is, again, potlaching. I'm not going to comment, notwithstanding being fresh out of potlaching country, as we get our culture up there from hard rock, not "the ancestors"

Wise at so many levels
but I will point out that you don't have to go all in for perhaps oversold comparative anthropological models to see something significant in the positioning of hillforts to be conspicuously visible from the chalk downlands (which are above the valley floors, because this is England), while the enclosed settlements are built to be invisible, except from their associated valleys. Public/private: "illegible" society. You know, that stuff. As if that isn't enough, the Early Iron Age sees a decline in burials and hoarding, and a return to the immemorial British practice of excarnation. What that means isn't clear, but forget what I just said, as Early Iron Age land-use seems to be quite respectful of "the ancestors," as manifested by barrows and stone circles. (It helps that these ancestors have been dead for a long time, and so can't tell you what to do.)

So we've got something a social revolution going on here --very '48. What else? There are a number of models of a metal-related LBA crisis, ranging from replacement models ("We don't want your costly foreign bronze, as we have perfectly good ironstone turning up in our fields after ploughing") to value collapse models ("Hey, I just realised that I'm enslaved by this commodity fetish. You know, when I think about it, I don't need the monetary nexus at all. You can keep your damn bronze!") I'm personally a fan of a monetary glut model (bronze loses value because there's too much of it). But what can I say? I'm a product of 2008. 

Glut or shortage, you have to get pretty deep into constructivist territory to think that it's not going to matter that iron shears allow you to produce four times as much wool per head of sheep. A naive economically-oriented interpretation, perhaps informed by the dollar shortage, is going to look at the spread of burnt mounds across the landscape as a desperate attempt to produce enough high quality textiles to export, so as to pay for imported bronze. Technological replacement of imported bronze by more efficient iron then goes a long way to explain why the superstructure of the old exchange system can be dispensed with.

That just leaves the problem of organising collective action on a new basis. Hillforts! For now, anyway. 

It proved surprisingly hard to find an image reference to the Carbonari, but this 1853 painting by Rosa Bonheur, The Charcoal Burner, is quite nice. 

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