Tuesday, 13 October 2020

'Witch marks' are just SO last decade... now carpenters marks are cool.

It's already mid October, Halloween is just around the corner, plague doctor masks are outselling just about every other costume on the internet, and my inbox is filling up once again. No, that isn't a euphemism. Stop smirking.

At this time of year the subject line of most of the emails is pretty much guaranteed to read 'witch marks', or some variant upon it. The tabloid media wanting images or, more usually, emails from the public wanting to know if the strange markings they have found on their house are indeed 'witch marks'. Firstly, I have to state that all the emails are welcome - unless they are from the Daily Mail obviously. They can go and do one. I try to reply to all the messages - eventually - and give an indication of the meaning of the markings they've discovered. At the very least it may heighten their interest in, and understanding of, their own house. They may look at it in a different light, and think about the generations who have called it home for centuries before they were born.

However, the replies always begin the same way.

"Many thanks for the message and attached images ('and apologies for the delay in reply to you' - optional depending upon how busy a month it has been). We tend not to use the term 'witch mark' these days, as it is both misleading and factually incorrect. The term itself was invented by a journalist only a couple of decades ago, and is sadly one we don't seem to be able to shake off. An actual 'witch mark' is the marking found upon the body of a witch (third nipple etc), that was thought to be the physical manifestation of their pact with the devil.

The markings in the images you sent are today more usually known as 'apotropaic' marks, or 'ritual protection marks', and in parts of northern Europe they are still called 'holy signs' - which is perhaps an altogether more descriptive name. The marks themselves have no direct links to witches, and were thought to ward off evil spirits and malign influences. Most of them have their origins in the imagery of the medieval church, and can best be thought of as 'anti-witch marks'." This is usually followed by a reading list.

Never let it be said that my replies don't give good value for money...

The thing is, nine times out of ten, the images I get sent aren't ritual protection marks at all. Anything but in fact. On a fairly regular basis I still receive images showing a large, deeply cut, 'broad arrow' design, which still appears to mystify a lot of people. These are usually the easiest to explain, as they are Ordnance Survey Benchmarks - the marks created by the good people of the Ordnance Survey to act as datum point when undertaking map-making surveys. They are usually to be found on permanent structures, such as churches or houses, and are nationwide, so it is easy to understand why people may be curious about them. You can read more about them here - https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/benchmarks/


However, almost all the other images I get sent (those that are in focus enough to see anything at all) are most usually 'Carpenters Marks'. You can almost feel the disappointment as they read my reply, and I do feel a bit sorry for them sometimes. It's like kicking a puppy. Not ritual, or protective, in any way. However, these marking are - I try and tell them enthusiastically - incredibly useful to a buildings archaeologist! They can tell us just SO MUCH about a building's construction history! In many ways they are EVEN BETTER than ritual protection marks!

They rarely fall for it obviously...

So what exactly are Carpenter's Marks? Well, it is all pretty straightforward really (this is a convenient lie). These are the marks made during the construction process of a timber building. The carpenter's would build their timber frame, and cut all their joints, most usually on the ground in an area sometimes known as a 'framing yard' - just to make sure it all fitted together perfectly. They would then mark each timber and joint with an individual marking - one on each of the timbers that formed the joint - so you would end up with a pair of markings. In this way they could ensure that when it was all taken apart again, and reassembled in its final position, everything ended up where it should be. Joint A to Joint A, joint B to joint B - just like a giant model kit. 

On stone or brick buildings they tend to be confined to the roof structure, or floor frames, but they can also be found on partition walls or similar. On fully timber framed buildings they are likely to be everywhere. They can also take a wide variety of forms, some being scratched, others cut neatly with chisels, and there are no completely set patterns - just some things that are commoner than others. 

Most usually the early examples are loosely based upon Roman numerals - XII, VIII, IX, etc - as these are easily made using a chisel. However, there are a few examples known about where Arabic numerals were used - even quite early on. The markings also often follow a numerical sequence, so you can actually work out which end a house was built from by working from the lower numbers towards the higher ones across the structure.

Having said that, if you go hunting for these marks don't expect to find nice neat Roman numerals all over your roof timbers. When I said they were often 'loosely' based on Roman numerals I really did mean loosely. At a recent survey of a sixteenth century floor frame at Oxburgh hall in Norfolk I recorded a lovely set of carpenter's marks that were set as typical Roman numerals. That is until you came to number nine, which instead of marking as IX (which can be mistaken for XI when viewed upside-down), they had substituted it with a broad arrow marking. Very much a case of 'this way up'.

In a symmetrical building, where the same joints appear on opposite sides of the frame, you will sometimes find that one side displays carpenter's marks in the form of Roman numerals, whilst the opposite side will have the same numerals, but each with an extra little 'tag'. A way of differencing the left from the right of the frame, or the front from the back.

You also quite commonly get examples that are a mixture of lines and circles - the circles being created with a carpenter's raze knife - and these are the ones most likely to get mistaken for ritual protection marks, even by some supposed 'experts'. And then there are the really rare markings. Those marks that appear to be confined to a single building, and have yet to be discovered anywhere else. Returning to Oxburgh hall again, a small number of the surviving medieval rafters of the western range - dating to somewhere between 1437 and 1463 - are marked with a semi-circular punch or moulding chisel. One punch for rafter one, two for rafter two, and so on.

Okay. So not quite as straightforward as I may have suggested a few paragraphs ago, but hopefully you get the idea.

And I wasn't exaggerating when I said that these markings are incredibly useful to a buildings archaeologist. Ritual marks may be a bit of a giggle at Halloween, but carpenter's marks are where the real fun is at. As mentioned above, they can give you a chronology for how a house was actually built - what came first, and how the builders tackled the project. They can even tell you a bit about the carpenters themselves. Are they the same type of mark throughout, or are multiple carpenters working on the project? They can even tell you quite a lot about what has happened since the house was first built. Are the markings all still in situ, and in the right order, or has the structure been altered, re-ordered, or repaired. They are, as you can see, incredibly useful little marks.

So this Halloween, whilst everyone is going on about bloody 'witch marks', spare a thought for the humble carpenter's marks. The marks left by honest craftsmen as their construction blueprints, and their own modest legacy to history.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Just how many archaeologists are there then?

Firstly, I should say, if anyone is expecting anything in this post about historic graffiti - you are going to be sadly disappointed. Best move on now. There's probably something good on the telly anyway.

So, the question has arisen - again - about how many people in the UK actually work in archaeology. This shouldn't be a difficult question to answer in many professions, but given the diversity of archaeology as a discipline, and the shocking way in which many commercial archaeologists are treated, it has traditionally caused a few issues. The result was a series of studies entitled 'Profiling the Profession'. In depth analysis of exactly how many people are employed by the sector, and how those patterns change over time. Even as it stands the study most usually doesn't make pleasant reading.

However, I recently made a somewhat rash statement on Twitter, replying to someone else's tweet, that caused a little bit of a stir ('Surely not?' I hear you cry...). A tiny bit of an upset in certain quarters. So - all I actually said was that most archaeologists do NOT work in commercial archaeology. A harmless enough statement you might think. However, it caused a few hackles to be raised. And why would that be? Well, because it flatly contradicts the figures published in the 'Profiling the Profession' report.

So did I make the statement just to cause a bit of trouble on Twitter? As you all know, that would be just SO unlike me... No, the reason I said it is because it's true - and based upon a very large, and really boring, piece of unrelated research I undertook about 18 months ago. It wasn't published at the time because it was suggested it might ruffle a few feathers. However, as feathers already appear to be ruffled... Sod them. I'll publish the outline anyway.

According to the latest 'Profiling the Profession' figures there are approximately 4792 individuals working in archaeology - you can read the full report here - https://landward.eu/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Archaeology-Labour-Market-Intelligence-Profiling-the-Profession-2012-13.pdf

Of those 41% work in non-commercial archaeology - leaving the other 59% working in the commercial field (estimated at 2812 individuals). You can see the full breakdown in the chart below - which I handily swiped from the report itself.

So what the problem? Well it's a simple one. The report MASSIVELY and demonstrably underestimates those working as archaeologists in the academic sector. The report estimated that the actual number of archaeologists working in academia at 690. According to my own research the figure is somewhere between 1600 and 1900. And that is probably on the low side.

So, a few caveats to begin with. I used the same definitions for someone working in archaeology as the 'Profiling the Profession' analysis did. So it doesn't include volunteers, hobbyists, metal detectorists, etc - just those who receive financial remuneration for working within one of the many different facets of the discipline. With regards to academia - I also didn't include honorary positions, emeritus posts (unless they were specifically teaching), or 'associates'. Nor did I include the many postgrads who actually undertake paid teaching within the discipline. By the definitions of the 'Profiling the Profession' report I probably should have - even though they usually are only part-time etc. However, had I included those individuals the final figure would have been at least twice as high.

I would state that I also didn't get data from all the universities, hence the variable figure above, but publicly available staff and teaching lists are accessible for approximately three quarters of UK institutions. This data is also out of date now, by about 18 months. I also concentrated almost solely upon archaeology departments, so missed most of those archaeologist working in other departments - such as history or museum studies. I also probably missed a lot of those working in departments associated with the science of archaeology. Sorry! The data from the 'Profiling the Profession' report was from 2012/13, whilst mine was mainly from 2018. However, I'm pretty sure academic archaeology didn't see a nearly threefold increase in those working in the area in the intervening five years. Just the opposite in fact.

To begin with, there are currently approximately 130 universities in the UK. I say approximately, as that also includes some University Colleges - but 130 is the generally accepted figure. According to the 'Profiling the Profession' report these 130 universities employ only 690 archaeologists. That's an average of 5.3 archaeologists per university. Sound credible anyone? Really? So lets look at a few examples then.

Firstly, the university of Cambridge Archaeology Department. Current staff role (not counting admins, emeritus, honorary, or associate staff) is 216. At any one time there are also approximately 150 post-grads - but we aren't counting them.

A similar story at Oxford, although not quite as many, with 92 on the staff roll (the same exceptions apply).

Then what about UCL? Well, leaving aside those working in the commercial wing as Archaeology South-East, and including only the emeritus staff who also teach (but again excluding post-grads, associates, etc.), we get a total also of 92.

So, between those three universities alone we reach a total of 400 of the 690, without even having to look at the other 127 UK universities. But we are going to look at them anyway. In no particular order -

Liverpool - 52
Exeter - 29
Birmingham - 28
Winchester - 10
Newcastle - 63
Lancashire - 8
Leicester - 33
Kent - 20
Worcester - 20
Glasgow - 22
Southampton - 55
Durham - 34
Reading - 33
Bishop Grosseteste Uni - 3
York - 70
Sheffield - 28
Queens University Belfast - 27
Manchester - 36
Nottingham - 39
Bradford - 24
Cardiff - 21
Edinburgh - 16
Chester - 15
Bournemouth - 25
Canterbury Christchurch - 6
Swansea - 14
Lincoln - 16

So that takes us to a nice round figure of 30 UK universities. 30 out of the approximately 130, and we have already reached a grand total of 1147 archaeologists. Rather a lot higher that the current estimates of 690 for the whole of UK academia. And the list goes on. But I hear you say that not all UK universities teach archaeology, so not all the UK universities will employ archaeologists, so although the estimate may be wrong, perhaps it isn't that wrong?


Take a university I know really quite well. The University of East Anglia. The only archaeology really taught there these days is in the Sainsbury Centre, yet the university still employs well over a dozen archaeologists, who teach in areas from landscape archaeology and church archaeology, to African archaeology and anthropology. It's the same at most universities. Archaeologists tend to get about a bit.

So, my own research (which is admittedly a couple of years out of date, and wasn't able to access the staff lists for every UK university), indicated that archaeologists employed in academia to undertake archaeology in one of its many forms, numbered between 1600 and 1900, rather than the 690 estimated in the 'Profiling the Profession' report. Give or take.

So what does that adjustment do to the overall figures for the profession? What percentage of archaeologists actually work in the non-commercial sector? Well, if we take even the lowest figure indicated by my research for the numbers working in academia (1600), things look rather different. Suddenly there are 2888 archaeologists working in the non-commercial sector, as opposed to the 2812 in the commercial sector. Very roughly 50/50. Take the higher figure of 1900 working in academia and it's 3185/2812 (53%/47%). I am also absolutely sure that these figures err on the side of caution, as most universities don't publish details of archaeological technicians etc., so the actual figure is probably higher. As I said at the beginning, if I had also included the post-grads who are paid to teach in all the fields of archaeology (who would qualify as 'tutors' under the 'Profiling the Profession' definitions), the number would probably be more than double that.

So where does that leave the debate? Well, I think the main point here is a simple one. IT SHOULDN'T BE A BLOODY DEBATE. Get over yourselves. We are, after all, meant to be working together, in the same profession. Surely it benefits no one to distinguish between what is considered to be 'real archaeology' or assume that commercial archaeology is representative of everyone engaged in the field.