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The Rhind Lectures 2018 in Wick, Caithness

21st September 2018 @ 6:00 pm - 23rd September 2018 @ 5:00 pm





The Society is delighted to announce that in association with Yarrows Heritage Trust the Rhind Lectures will be repeated over the weekend of 21-23 September in Wick.  The venue is the Pulteney Centre, Huddart Street, Wick, Caithness KW1 5BA.  Booking is recommended by calling the Centre on 01955 608530.  For full details please email Ian Giles, Yarrows Heritage Trust secretary iangiles01@btinternet.com.



The Rhind Lectures Wick 21st -23rd September 2018


Supported by Lybster & Tannach Community Fund

Drystone technologies: Neolithic tensions and Iron Age compressions’

Dr John Barber MA, BA, FSA, FSA Scot, MCIfA.

The technical engineering capacities of prehistoric builders of large Neolithic and Iron Age structures are intriguing. Invasive introduction has been the favoured explanatory mechanism for structural innovation in these islands, rather than the converse appeal to domestic design genius. However, drystone engineering so constrains the builders’ design ambitions that similar structures result from the limitations of the technology more than from the social interconnections of their builders. These lectures explore the interplay of technological capacity and design freedom in prehistoric Scotland.

John Barber was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1947 and graduated from University College Cork, before going on to a career in archaeology. He recently graduated with a PhD in Architecture at the University of Edinburgh, building upon two decades of specialist interest in large drystone-built structures in Western Europe in general and the British Isles in particular. Between 1976 and 1992 he worked in what has now become HES before leaving it to found the AOC Archaeology Group, of which he was managing director until 2011. In the recent past he has excavated, mainly for conservation purposes, elements of three Neolithic chambered cairns and was involved in the excavation of five brochs. He is currently involved in the excavation and conservation of brochs like Clachtoll, Castle Grugaig and others. In developing approaches to these monuments, he has also re-constructed cairns and brochs and their compositional elements at scales ranging from 1:50, to 1:1, to study their stability issues and decomposition mechanisms.

6.00pm  Friday 21st September  2018

The urge to build: invariant and canonical forms: pathways to decomposition

This lecture introduces concepts developed in the following lecture series. The instinctive basis for building is contrasted with the social determinism of archaeological interpretations. Then the categorisation of structures explored and thee significance of the differences between structures and our categorisations of them leads to a functional definition of ‘real-world’ monuments. Canonical structures are introduced, and we explore the influence of canonicity not only on the formation of monuments but also on their subsequent decomposition under anthropic or natural forces. Turning to the practical issues of building stable drystone structures issues of mass, volume and strength are introduced and finally a redefinition of monumentality as engineering inefficiency is proposed.

Followed by a Reception

11.00am Saturday 22nd  September 2018

Corbelling, the horizontal arch and polycope walls in the construction of loose fill monuments.

Addressing the specifics of drystone building, and using Neolithic chambered cairns as the exemplars, this lecture will set out the engineering challenges of constructing chambers and the difficulty of making cairns of loose stone stable by use of polycope walls. The issue of canonicity and monumentalisation, the latter considered as aggrandisement, will again be touched upon using examples from Iberia and the Baltic, as well as from Scotland. Finally, the challenges involved in joining the chamber and its passage will be proposed as the principal architectural engineering problem and the driver of some at least of the diversity of monument forms in Scottish Neolithic monuments.

 2.00pm Spandrels: architecture as an unintended consequence of engineering

John Ruskin considered architecture to comprise all the parts of a structure that were not necessary for its structural integrity, the rest was merely ‘building’ [or ‘structural engineering’]. In building an archway within a rectangular frame, two vaguely triangular areas are excluded in the upper left and right corners of the rectangle; these are the spandrels. These by-products of construction became available for architecture, for social manipulation, and were highly decorated over time. In Neolithic chambered cairns, the primary structural challenge of joining the entrance passage to the chamber produced a range of engineering solutions which created spaces and structures that, like spandrels, became available for acculturation but some were apparently ignored. Finally, some comments are offered on the vexed matter of the conservation of chambered cairns.

3.30pm  Towers in drystone construction

The evolutionary theorists have questioned the evolutionary value of of the early stages of the development of complex structures like wings and eyes might be, and the question may be equally applied to the drystone-built broch tower. There is no evolutionary or developmental potential for gradualist formation of a 15m high tower. This assertion will be explored via a revision of the paradigmatic ‘standard model’ broch. A structural analysis of the broch tower model reveals its strengths and weaknesses, but more particularly reveals essential structural assemblies that never existed before towers were built. It will be argued that these present us with evidence for unique acts of Iron Age creation, possibly even of architectural engineering genius. They equally leave us with enormous challenges in their conservation.

2.00pm   Sunday 23rd September  2018

Full fathom five: the repair, rebuild, reuse and abuse of brochs

Gurness and Midhowe exemplify the scale of modification of broch towers and their chimerical nature as excavated for public presentation will be laid out. Thrumster broch will present evidence of sequential and significant re-modelling over time, paralleled elsewhere, and the broch at Clachtoll was probably abandoned before the mid first century BC by which time it had already undergone at least one, and probably more, significant structural failure episodes. Despite the observed high levels of mutation and destruction, it can be confidently argued that the original monuments have been constrained in their scales and their form almost unswerving from a ‘standard model’ updated for this study. The consequences of the complex diachronic nature of these monuments present particular difficulties for their interpretation, conservation and presentation, some of which will be exemplified from current work.

3.30pm The economics of tower building: ‘For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?’ Luke 14: 28-30.

Agricultural surplus, widely held to be the foundation of economic systems, underpins an economic model that could represent a generic Iron Age social context. By establishing a yardstick for the measurement of construction effort that is keyed to the simple physics of lifting and moving mass, we can assess the relative ‘building costs’ for brochs of varying scales. The dates of the brochs will be explored in the context of the ‘container and contained’. And an approach to resolving the difficulties of their conservation will be summarised. Finally, a plea is entered for the consideration of the monument as an artefact, requiring no less attention than any other artefact.

Click here to see our collection of related publications.



21st September 2018 @ 6:00 pm
23rd September 2018 @ 5:00 pm
Event Category:


0131 247 4133

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