Brainiac Scottish archaeology: let’s just set fire to it…

I’m back. In fact I’ve been back for three days now, but only on Saturday did I actually get to sleep in my own bed and therefore actually start catching up on the whole backlog. For some reason Leeds and adequate sleep don’t really work out for me. Anyway, there will be a series of posts reporting on the International Medieval Congress 2008 as I experienced it, and here I will merely say that it was draining, but enlightening, fun and hopefully extremely useful as well as going relatively well from the point of view of the bits I was organising.

Brainiac logo

While I get everything else together, though, here’s a wonderful thing I discovered while reading on the train on the way up. We often talk about how to popularise our subject, or whether that would be a good thing to do at all: you can find a couple of arguments that have been started about this on Modern Medieval and several links to more if you should need them. In the UK the sciences have some of the same issues, because just as archaeology has Time Team, which popularises but perhaps at the cost of trivialising (and also encouraging digs to be done in two weeks with a JCB rather than a year with careful trowel-work), the physical sciences have Brainiac, which has such notable features as “does it fizz or does it bang?” and regularly seizing any excuse to demolish caravans with high explosives. Time Team doesn’t really compare, in as much as its actual aims are genuinely academic, after the important business of making money out of TV; Brainiac has no such awkward shame to conceal. (It is great fun though.)

Now, obviously there’s no way really to provide a Brainiac-level equivalent in archaeology, right? Wrong! It’s just that it was done far too long ago for TV. Let me explain. There are in Scotland a number of probably-prehistoric fortifications which were built of stone with a timber framework, and they’re usually called timber-laced forts, but also vitrified forts, because as they survive they tend to have been impressively burnt, so that the actual stone has liquefied and run in the heat, leaving it with a glassy appearance.

The vitrified fort of Tap o\'Noth, Aberdeenshire

Now historians and archaeologists (at this depth of early Scottish history there isn’t really a gap between the two) have often wondered how on earth these forts got that hot. Surely you can’t do this in a siege, can you? How horrible for the defenders if you could, sheets of blue flame gouting from the walls and so on, but it doesn’t seem initially likely. You’d have to somehow be at the wall-face with igniferous devices long enough to touch off the protruding beams with hostile Picts (or whoever) raining stuff down on you, much of which might be flame-retardant (you know, like water). And so, in 1937, two people decided to replicate this sort of burning by way of a test. Not with a real fort obviously, but with a stretch of wall they’d built in the same way. Who were these harum-scarum ragamuffins of early Scottish archaeology, you may ask? Step forward one Vere Gordon Childe and his assistant Wallace Thorneycroft. They’ll never amount to anything at that rate, right? But anyway. Leslie Alcock took up the story in that book I’ve mentioned:

… Childe and Thorneycroft built a length of timber-laced wall which incorporated 7 tons 7 cwt (7500kg) of stone, about 1 ton (1016kg) of dry pit-props and 6 cwt (350kg) of scrap timber. In their own words, ‘to ignite the wall, scrap timber and brushwood were heaped around,….about 4 tons [4064kg] being used’.

Apparently, all they got was “some degree of vitrification”, and after all what with being so historically careful (5 tons of dry wood! Just in case it’s damp I suppose!) you might expect no more. Their, and Alcock’s conclusion, is that to get the forts into the state they are now in they must have been slowly, methodically and very thoroughly burnt after their capture, covering them with wood and brush and generating a truly awful heat that, nonetheless, didn’t necessarily prevent the forts’ subsequent use as military defences. All a bit weird. But I mainly love the idea of Gordon Childe diligently considering how the best to set up a really really huge fire using tons and tons of wood and stone, all in the name of science…

I got this tale from Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), p. 182 whence quote with all its weird spacing in the original. He cited the original study, V. Gordon Childe & W. Thorneycroft, “The experimental production of the phenomena distinctive of vitrified forts” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Vol. 72 (Edinburgh 1937-1938), pp. 41-55, and also a later experiment in the same vein which apparently was televised–someone with a computer that can handle Youtube has to go looking for this. Text reference for that one is Ian Ralston, “The Yorkshire Television vitrified wall experiment at East Tullos”, ibid. Vol. 116 (1986), pp. 17-40. NB that in finding supporting links for this post I find also that I’m not the first person to put these references on the web, and a full-scale and more scholarly take thus awaits you at the end of this link.

8 responses to “Brainiac Scottish archaeology: let’s just set fire to it…

  1. I thought the foundations/outer walls were intentionally burnt by their builders to make them stronger. They then built the rest of the fort after the vitrified part cooled. Of course, I’ve never seen one or even plans of one.

  2. I suppose that would also work, though it seems like a fearsome effort to go to when the era in question had no siege engines in particular. Unless the enemy in mind was the Romans, I suppose. But this doesn’t seem to be the message of the historiography such as I’m seeing; do you know of more up-to-date work?

  3. technical problem alert–three links aren’t working. (Several likns to more, they’ll never amount to anything, and the most important link, “at the end of this link”.)

  4. Blast! Fixed now, thankyou for the heads-up. I’m not used to anyone actually following the links I put in, it’s probably as well someone reminds me that they might every now and then…

  5. Seriously, academics should set more stuff on fire. That would be awesome!

  6. “Professor Gabriele was later apprehended attempting to reenact the Siege of Antioch with Molotov cocktails. He explained that as the recipe for Greek Fire remains unknown, he had had to improvise.” :-)

    You must also be congratulated, by the way, on having left Comment #666 on this blog, which seems perfectly appropriate given that you were advocating a historical inferno…

  7. No one seems to have notices the key problem here. How do you get all these tons and tons of *dry* wood in Scotland? You’ve just got all the stuff together for a really good burn, it chucks it down, and you’re back to square one in demolishing or reinforcing your fort.

  8. Magistra-
    Thorneycroft owed Plean House and its estate, and also the various pits in the village. The experiment was actually conducted on one of them (now Plean Precast), and all the dry wood used was from pit props.

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