Sensual Archaeology

Archaeology is not one simple subject.  It is multi-disciplinary, taking ideas from all kinds of fields, including biology, chemistry, sociology, psychology, history (of course) and even philosophy.  One of the most important ideas which has come from philosophy is phenomenology.

Phenomenology was an idea propounded by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), a German-Austrian philosopher (Sawicki, 2014).  It is a philosophical technique used in subjects as diverse as architecture, psychology and particle physics.  It was brought into archaeology primarily by Christopher Tilley’s book A Phenomenology of Landscape in 1994 (Brück, 2005).  Put as simply as possible, phenomenology is the study of how things appear from a particular point of view.  Its etymology is from Greek ‘Φαινομενον’ phainomenon, ‘appearance’ (Smith, 2013) (also obviously the etymological root of ‘phenomenon’).  This is as opposed to the ‘reality’ of how things are.

For instance, when we look at a piece of paper, we can only see one side.  Without folding or bending it, it is impossible to see both sides of the sheet of paper at once.  This does not, however, mean that the other side of the paper doesn’t exist, only that from our perspective it does not exist.  This is a very useful mind-set to have within an archaeological setting.  Nowadays, aerial photography can show us an ancient mound from above, surrounded by open moorland.  This view is clearly very different to that which a person would have seen when the mound was new.

After the nature of the landscape at the time of the construction of the mound has been established, phenomenology can be used to see the mound from the perspective of a person on the ground.  Maybe he was surrounded by trees which blocked his view?  Maybe there was a village surrounding the mound?  Maybe he wasn’t a he?  Any of these can help us to form a picture of how the mound would have been viewed and experienced at the time, and give us some idea of its purpose.  Tilley (1994) suggested that the formation of the stones of a portal tomb at Pentre Ifan in Wales (see Figure 1) mimicked the shape of the nearby mountain of Carn Ingill.  This is an example of a phenomenological approach.  Phenomenology is not only a visual approach; it is about experiencing the environment and landscape through the body – sensual archaeology.

It may seem an obvious way of looking at things in archaeology, but there are so many perspectives available to us nowadays that it is often overlooked.  However, there are problems with this approach.  No matter how hard we look, we are still seeing through the eyes of a modern Westerner (at least I am) and this can only go so far in illuminating the human experience of, for instance, the Neolithic period (Brück, 2005).  We may find it impossible to reconstruct the landscape of the time – it may be hard to tell whether the area was forested or not; a river might have changed its course; maybe sea levels were higher or lower.  For archaeological phenomenology to be accurate, a realistic and accurate viewpoint is necessary.  Even so, the more perspectives available to anyone trying to deconstruct the past, the better- the more viewpoints you have of anything, the better the picture you can build of it.

Figure 1 - Pentre Ifan, and, behind, Carn Ingill (after Brück, 2005, Figure 2).
Figure 1 – Pentre Ifan, and, behind, Carn Ingill (after Brück, 2005, Figure 2).


Brück, J. (2005). Experiencing the Past? The Development of Phenomenological Archaeology in British Prehistory. Archaeological Dialogues, 45-72.

Sawicki, M. (2014). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource. Retrieved from

Smith, D. W. (2013). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from

Tilley, C. Y. (1994). A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths, and Monuments. Oxford: Berg. (2011)

Celtic Influence on English

Dragging myself out of my deep pit of procrastination, I’ve decided to write some more. I’m still not entirely sure what the purpose of this blog is; I’m just feeding a compulsion and this seems like a good outlet.

One of the biggest mysteries in historical linguistics is why there are so few Celtic words in English. After all, two thousand years ago Britain supposedly had a Celtic culture. A thousand years after that, however, Celtic languages were in a minority.

The most commonly used words of Celtic origin in English are: dad, flannel, paw, hog, gull, crumpet, lawn, crockery, iron and penguin( meaning white-head). In place names we have: tor (hill) , coombe (valley) , Avon (river)and Exe (water), these words becoming more common the further West you go. There are more, such as Druid, Dolmen and menhir, but I’m talking about mainstream words here.

Before the Romans came there were three main language groups in the British Isles. Our knowledge of this is very hazy but the basic picture is this; in the far North there were Picts, who may or may not have been Celtic at all, but probably were and were probably related to the second group, the Brithonic-speakers, or Britons, in the south. These people took up most of Britain and Welsh, Cornish and Breton are its direct descendants. In Ireland were the Gaels who spoke Gaelic.

These two main groups are called P-Celtic (Brithonic) and Q-Celtic (Gaelic), because Brithonic uses a P sound where Gaelic uses a Q/K sound. Hence ‘mac’ in Gaelic means ‘son’ (MacDonald etc.), and ‘map’ in Brithonic meant the same (modern Welsh ‘ap’).

Pink is Anglo-Saxon speaking, Yellow Brithonic-speaking
Pink is Anglo-Saxon speaking, Yellow Brithonic-speaking

Britain was one of the only places in the Western Roman Empire where Latin never really took hold. After the last Roman legions left in 410AD Latin completely died out except as a church language, Christianity having been brought to Britain about a hundred years before. The people were left speaking the same languages as they had before, with some additions. For example, ‘ffenestr’, from Latin ‘fenestram’, means ‘window’; ‘cloch’, from Latin ‘clocca’, means ‘bell’ (English ‘clock’). Llyfr is from latin ‘librus’ – ‘book’. There are many other words, but they all tend to be related to the Church and to refer to things which people would not already have had words for.

Someone has actually constructed a hypothetical language, called Brithenig, which could have been the language that might have evolved up to the present day along the same lines as, for example, French. It contains a few Celtic words but is mainly Latin with a ‘Celtic’ accent. Here’s an interesting link:

The other special thing about Britain was that it was the only place in the Roman Empire in the West where the people took on the language of the invaders after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the mid 5th Century. There were Germanic invasions in Spain and France at the same time but people continued to speak their Latin languages.

It’s still a mystery why Celtic languages were wiped out so quickly and completely in England. There is a theory, and some evidence, that there was a plague which only affected the British population and not the Anglo-Saxons. The general idea is that the British were more prone to live in larger conurbations and the Anglo-Saxons shunned the old Roman cities and tended more towards isolated villages and farmsteads. This, added to the fact that the two cultures had little contact in the first century or two meant that the British were effectively wiped out in eastern Britain.

The two cultures’ different styles of warfare seem to be a large factor in this as well. It’s well documented that the British style of fighting relied of skirmish and ambush tactics, with very light armour and weapons. This isn’t to say that they never used heavier equipment, only that they tended culturally towards this. Outside of what is now Wales, British tactics relied heavily on cavalry using hit and run attacks, with a very small proportion of the army being heavy cavalry built for charging. In Wales, infantry predominated.

This is in contrast with the Anglo-Saxon style of warfare which was based on infantry in tight formations with little cavalry. This made it a lot easier for them to defend sites once they had been taken, going some way to explaining the rapid take-over of British land.

British settlements weren’t immediately taken over in a lot of cases and were often left to their own devices. We can still see this in the current borders of some of the Southern counties, where there are small indents or ‘bubbles’ surrounding a surviving British settlement of some sort, left outside the new shire borders.

These are all just theories but for me it’s the most convincing explanation as to how an entire culture was obliterated in just a short span of time. This goes some way towards explaining why we use so few Celtic words.

However, Celtic languages have influenced English in a much greater and more subtle way. A quick glance at other Germanic languages such as German or Norwegian shows that English has a very different structure and sound system. All of the languages in Britain, Gaelic, Brithonic and English, have the same general set of sounds. All use ‘th’ and‘w’ and are the only languages to use these in Western Europe. In English we say ‘I am going’ instead of simply ‘I go’ as in German. This probably comes from Welsh, which has similar constructions.

These linguistic idiosyncrasies give a picture of a very fast takeover and establishment of English cultural areas, and then growing contact over the successive centuries, but never a true mingling of cultures. There’s a lot I haven’t mentioned; the many Celtic dialect words in Western England and the Yan Tan Tethera method of counting sheep for example, and I have simplified a few linguistic terminologies, but this is all I really have space for!

Again, thanks for getting this far!

First Post!

Having recently had fairly major surgery on my knee, I’ve been laid up in bed typing up the handwritten articles my late Grandad wrote for ‘Signpost – the journal of the Forty-Plus Cycling Club’. Born in 1913, he cycled his entire life. He experienced Army life in the Second World War and was an avid reader of encyclopaedias. The myriad subjects he wrote about in his rambling prose ranged from his overseas service to the etymology of pub names.

This has inspired me to do something similar, both as a constructive enterprise and to stave off the boredom that overcomes me when the opiates in my blood start to run thin. I have always had a fascination with both History and Language. When I wish to know more about something I invariably look at its origins. Hence etymology, the history of words, has always been a focal point of mine. I’d like this blog to focus on language and its usage, mainly in the past. I’d also like to touch on History and Archaeology a bit.

I intend on this being a regular blog as I still have a few weeks of inactivity ahead of me, though whether it will be daily or weekly I have no idea. I doubt very much that I will stick to this brief, but hopefully this and the upcoming entries will be both informative and, possibly, entertaining.

OK, let’s talk about runes.

Everyone knows a bit about runes; they were Norse letters, imbued with mysticism and magic. Each one not only had a corresponding sound, but also a meaning. This meaning was used for divination, by throwing rune tablets or stones onto the ground and noting the positions in which they landed. Runic alphabets, however, were not purely a ‘Viking’ phenomenon.

There are several variations which are known as Futharks, Futhorks, Futhorcs or Futharcs, the name being based on the first six runes in the alphabet (much as the word alphabet itself is based on the first two letters of the greek alphabet, α and β). Runes (the word comes from an Indo-European word meaning ‘secret’ or ‘mystery’ and is related to Moden Welsh ‘rhin’ meaning the same thing) first appeared in the 2nd Century AD among Germanic tribes.

Mainly they were used to commemorate dead people, as on headstones, or to denote the maker or owner of an important object, such as a sword or knife. This was the Elder Futhark, used by people mainly in the area of Northern Germany/ Denmark/ Southern Scandinavia speaking a language we now know of as Proto Germanic, the ancestor of all Germanic languages today, including English. Old English, the first form of English, spoken in Britain from the time the first Anglo-Saxons came here (in about 400AD) up until after the Norman Conquest (about 1150AD), had its own form of runes – the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc. These seem to have been used for wider purposes than the older Elder Futhark’s letters. People actually used them to convey messages and to write poems and riddles.

After the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were Christianised in the 6th Century people continued to use them despite the growing use of Latin script in the new monasteries. Runes in England after this period, up until their demise after the fall of Anglo-Saxon society in 1066, were more the script of the ‘everyman’. They were increasingly shunned by the Church for their heathen roots but were still commonly used to record names on precious objects. There is also evidence, based on certain poems and other texts, that people continued to use them for their original purpose of divination.

The Anglo- Saxon method was slightly different to the Norse one: a short hazel stave would be taken and a message would be carved onto it. The stave would then either be carried or placed somewhere to fulfil its purpose. Runes are designed to be carved. They contain no horizontal lines which would split the wood, and obviously no curves.

As I have already mentioned, each rune had a different meaning, much like with, for instance, Japanese or Chinese scripts. For example, the first rune was ‘Feoh’, which meant cattle, or wealth. It’s the origin of our word ‘fee’. ‘Cen’, meant torch. ‘Eh’ meant ‘horse’. ‘Gifu’ meant ‘gift’. These would be arranged together in the way the runecaster wanted in order to show or decipher meaning. [I did originally put the actual runes in here, but wordpress won’t let me show them… ]

There’s not much more we know about the use of runes in England. Norse runes have a much larger presence in archaeology, hence why people tend to hear about them more. What’s really interesting is that they were used right up until the early 20th Century in parts of rural Sweden (the Dalecarlian Runes).

Runes for me are interesting because they represent the melding of language and the spiritual belief system (and hence the culture) of the Anglo-Saxons and their forbears. Presumably, each individual rune meant more to people back then than our Latin letters do to us today. Each one represented a part of their culture and system of beliefs and cutting them into wood or bone would have been a very meaningful activity. I believe that learning about the language of a society is imperative to understanding that culture.

Runes were the way in which the Anglo-Saxons expressed their language and hence, by proxy, the way they thought and what they believed.

Thanks for getting this far! I’ll be writing more soon…