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The Archaeology of Buildings by Richard K. Morriss (2000)

A few years ago some web searches on reading a building/vernacular architecture suggested The Archaeology of Buildings by Richard K. Morriss as a key title. The book’s long been out of print, and every time it cropped up second-hand it was prohibitively expensive. Over the summer I finally managed to snap-up a copy at a reasonable price.

Fans of Time Time may remember Mr Morriss as one of the experts brought in to advise on buildings’ histories. The book introduces ‘buildings archaeology’ as a distinct branch of archaeology, and gives some of the background as to why this has been controversial in the archaeological community.

This is not a chronological, period-by-period take on architectural history. Instead the chapters explores the materials and methods used in the construction of each essential parts of any building: walls, roofs, floors. The emphasis is on the development of British, principally English, vernacular architecture, and why building styles and approaches changed in response to economics, changes in buildings’ uses, and the raw materials available.

The section on brickwork was particularly interesting. The author explains the development of brick sizes, the difference between bonds and how bond popularity changed. He also stresses that the front wall of a building is frequently not indicative of what is behind it, with lower-quality materials often used behind a more impressive brick or ashlar fa├žade.

The sections on how to draw plans and evaluations are particularly detailed, with an emphasis on best-practice surveying techniques, eg how to use triangulation to establish accurate distances between points when recording a building.

The chapter on using digital technology is pretty out-of-date now, but Mr Morriss understands the pace that digital record-keeping, storage, formats etc. mores, are that hardware and software recommendations are unlikely to be future-proof. Good record-keeping practice is suggested, rather than individual technologies.

Despite the depth of detail, the tone is never lecturing, with the author keen to advise on best-practice, though with a sensible flexibility for different types and sizes of project: there are things you must do, but feel free to present or deliver them in a format that work’s best for the audience/client.

Not being fluent in all of the vocabulary, I found myself wanting more illustrations to visualise specific architectural details, though a book like this can’t be expected to provide photos or diagrams for every description. As you can see from the pics above, all the diagrams and most other photos are black-and-white, with a central section of coloured plates.

A book for anyone that wants a good introduction into how to read vernacular architecture and translate that knowledge into a written report.

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