Thursday, 8 May 2014

Putting Two And Two Together

I was struck by a simple example both of how structure can emerge from chaos and completely without any design or intent, and how science can make logical but always provisional deductions from the known facts and observations. This was provided by something I noticed on a visit to Pompeii the other day. I was also struck by how scientific observation differs radically from theology in it's ability to work from the known to the unknown and so for the unknown to become the known.

For those who haven't heard of Pompeii, or believe he was a Roman Emperor, Pompeii was a major Roman town situated a few miles south of modern Naples and probably had it's origins as a pre-Roman Greek settlement just as Naples does. Together with the nearby town of Herculaneum it was destroyed by an eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in 79 CE, having already been damaged by an earthquake related to Vesuvius's seismic activity in 63 CE. The entire settlement was covered in hot volcanic ash from a plume which extended down Italy to beyond Amalfi in the south. People were suffocated and died where they slept as can be seen from the casts of their bodies found when the city was excavated.

Almost every street junction, and at regular intervals in almost every street there are these raised flat-topped oval stones standing up above the street paving and more or less level with the walkways either side. Narrower streets have sometimes two, usually three blocks while the wider ones might have four. Between these blocks can often be seen deep grooves in the paving usually becoming less distinct the farther up or down the street they are from the blocks.

Okay, so what can we reasonably deduce from these blocks and their position and frequency?

Well, their position, their distance apart - just about a single pace - and the fact that they have flat tops is almost certainly because they were stepping stones on which to cross the street. Why would they have needed stepping stones to cross a street on? Quite obviously because they didn't want to step onto the street itself.

So, conclusion number one is that the actual streets of Pompeii were not the sort of places one would want to walk in. In fact, the streets were not only the city's drains, they were also not very frequently cleaned and probably relied on heavy rains to keep them from filling up altogether. The only non-human source of power with which to move bulk quantities of goods around would have been horse and donkey power. The roads were not just the city's sewers they were also full of horse excrement. This we can provisionally deduce from the fact that they needed stepping stones to cross the street on.

Now, what does this have to do with the other thing that struck me - emergence of structures from chaos and without planning or intent?

Look again at those groves. They have been made by generations of wheeled carts going between the stepping stones and all being forced to take almost exactly the same path between the blocks. No one need have planned to have those groves there; they were produced by the chaos of the paths of thousands of carts over the centuries being forced to channel into a single grove by the presence of the stepping stones which were necessary at least partly because the carts were being drawn along the streets by horses. And, as the grooves got deeper so they would have kept the wheels in line longer and so would have tended to lengthen over time.

And now we can deduce a few more things here: the carts were very probably iron-rimmed or the wood they were made from would hardly have marked the black volcanic basalt the paving is made from, so they were Iron-Age people with an economy sufficient to support iron smelters, or to buy it from those who could. They also had specialist cartwrights and wheel-rights and needed to move goods around in bulk, so they probably had trade and traders and people with money to spend, so they had paid labour and professionals who were paid for their specialist services.

It's also very probably that the horses were shod with iron shoes to work on the hard basalt streets, which means blacksmiths and farriers.

That now begs an interesting question that doesn't have a ready answer but we can reasonably narrow it down to three possible answers, some more realistic than others. Look again at the groves. How would a cart drawn by a single horse negotiate these blocks? Did the horse pass between two of the blocks before moving across to bring the cart into line? Did it step up onto the block and down the other side to keep the cart in line - if so one would expect to see signs of wear on that block? Or were there two horses?

And there are a couple of things we can deduce now about the political organisation. To make this system work at all there would need to be an accepted standard wheel guage and minimum wheel size so the carts could always negotiate the blocks without becoming stuck. They need to be able to fit between the blocks and the axle needs to clear them and this suggests city authorities able to impose this standardisation on both cart and street design. Once this system had become established, it would be impossible to change it without major disruption, so, just like an evolving organism, Pompeii would have been stuck with a system which, good, bad or indifferent for future needs, could only change within very small limits without causing major disruption.

So there we have it. Using deductive logic based on scientific observation, we can deduce a great deal about the political, economic and social conditions of Pompeii, all from the incidence of a pattern of grooves worn in the streets and how they came to emerge from chaos with no design or intent at any point.

Of course, all this is provisional and contingent upon finding solid confirmatory evidence so we can never say we have proved it, only that it looks very possible, even highly likely.

This of course is not possible with theology where the conclusions are already in place and are sacred. No evidence or deductive logic can have any impact on what is 'known' with absolute certainty, despite their being no evidence at all for it. And so creationists keep telling us that order can come from chaos and that all structure must have been consciously designed for a purpose. Ironically, this keeps their understanding of the Universe where it was in the Bronze-Age when Pompeii was a small village, if it was there at all.

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