Just So Stories on architecture’s origins


During the construction of a corniche road near Nice, in France, in the later 20th Century, a site was uncovered which appeared, from its marks and scrapings on the ground, to indicate a very ancient hand at work.   From the positioning and relationship of stones and fragmentary traces which suggested man-made shapes, archaeologists reconstructed ‘the earliest known buildings in the archaeological record,’ and named the place Terra Amata.

Dating it to 300,000 years ago, the 20th Edition of Banister Fletcher’s History of Architecture (second edition, 2004) from which I quoted just now, went on to describs it with some precision.   “Excavation revealed traces of oval huts ranging from 8 m (26 ft) to 15 m (49 ft) in length and 4 m (13 ft) to nearly 6 m (19 ft) in width, built on sandy beaches close to what had been the shoreline. The hut walls were made of stakes about 75 mm (3 in) in diameter, set as a palisade in the sand and braced on the outside by a ring of stones. A line of stout posts, each about 300 mm (12 in) in diameter, was set up along the long axis of each hut, but evidence of the shape of the roof has not survived. The floor of each hut consisted of a thick bed of organic matter and ash. Each hut had a central hearth and these are among the oldest yet discovered anywhere in the world. The fireplaces were either pebble-paved surfaces or shallow pits between 300 mm (1 ft) and 600 mm (2 ft) in diameter, scraped out of the sand. Both types of hearth were protected from draughts by small pebble windscreens. Archaeologists have differentiated other areas within the huts as tool-manufacturing workshops. The huts are believed to have been rebuilt annually on the same sites by nomadic hunters who habitually visited Terra Amata in the spring.”

In a cave not far away, at Le Lazaret, the same text tells us, there was found “an early example of a lean-to, about 12 m x 4 m (39 ft x 13 ft), erected against one wall of a cave and defined at the base by rows of stones, and possibly post supports. A skin curtain and roof may have been draped over the posts, and the lean-to may have had two compartments separated by an internal partition, each with an entrance on the long side. The larger of the two compartments contained two hearths.”   This one is dated a hundred and fifty thousand years after the first, that is at only 150,000 years ago.

Spiro Kostof, in his History of Architecture (second edition, 1995), illustrated the former, earlier site with the same beautiful reconstruction drawing used in Fletcher.  But also, in Kostof’s vivid descriptive words, it grows into architecture. The rings of pebbles indicate a sense of ordering, of spatial differentiation and place making: there is the place for the hearth and for working; place for the midden and a carefully cleaned space for sleeping.  The saplings used as palisade were tied together at a ridge as a protective “joined hands”.   Thus Kostof evokes that archetypal post-Edenic image of architecture, as Adam and Eve’s arms cover their heads, sheltering their nakedness from God’s eye.   The bases, Kostof continues, were braced with a string of large stones around the outside, and two or more poles under the ridge on the central axis.

Though he admits no one has worked out how they were held together, he goes on to tell us that they dug with fire-hardened spears and cut with flint or limestone hand axes. These 20 huts by the beach, though inhabited over the years, were left by their nomadic builders to decay each autumn; and then, Kostof tells us, in the late spring of each year, they were reconstructed with new saplings. Here is imaged the embryo of architectural place making and spatial formation.  And all this, even more excitingly, he dates to a hundred millennia earlier than Banister Fletcher’s History, to 400,000 years ago.


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Today archaeologists are more wary.  Certainly very ancient flint tools were found at both these and other similar (they are called Acheulean) sites on the French Mediterranean coast.  But it is equally likely that the found configurations of stones resulted from soil creep, from their being naturally deposited by the flow of a stream, or by another natural process.

As archaeologist Richard G Klein says of the Grotte du Lazaret, “It is by no means certain that the stones were brought into the cave and placed by people, and natural processes or a reason for their placement not involving a structure may explain their presence.”   And of Terra Amata, he concludes that “as with other sites of possible human shelters, the evidence is more conjectural than compelling.”  And finally “the evidence for housing in the archaeological record prior to the arrival of modern humans 50,000 years ago is slim.”

Of course, most of us architectural historians are only the most amateur of archaeologists and, unable to interrogate the evidence ourselves, we must trust the best expertise.  But upon that we cannot help but develop stories about an architecture, easily swept up by our enthusiasm.    While that enthusiasm in a fine historian such as Kostof may be aiming purely to develop an understanding of the formation and ritual occupation of places, others might well have agendas beyond the material itself.

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In 2001, India’s science and technology minister announced the finding of a ‘cultural complex’ in the Gulf of Khambat (formerly Cambay) resembling the major cities of the great Indus Valley Civilisation, with regular geometric patterns representing a granary, a great bath and a citadel. Later that year, the same team dredged and recovered a block of wood dated to 9,500 BCE, or five millennia before the Indus Valley Civilisation. In 2006 the same Indian National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) also dredged up the world’s earliest-known pottery remains, scientifically dated to 31,000 BCE.

However, this primal, sunken city was being given little credence just a few years later.

–            Marine geologists are sceptical of the interpretations of the NIOT scientists, arguing that the “geometric patterns” interpreted to be submerged structures are artefacts of the sonar imaging process itself.  The linear patterns interpreted to be the foundations and walls might represent nothing more than naturally-occurring fracturing and jointing.

–            There is a no evidence that the piece of wood is associated with the geometric patterns seen in sonar images or with any human action. It is quite common to find pieces of wood, which are thousands of years old, eroded from older natural sediments and incorporated into modern ones.

–            The optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating of the items identified as “pottery” produced ages virtually identical to OSL dates from associated sediments. That suggests that the “pottery” was never fired and actually consists of pieces of naturally cemented sediments. The extremely old samples, as many other “artefacts” recovered from the Gulf of Khambat, may rather be not man-made artefacts but concretions, nodules, and related objects of natural origin.

So this Indian architectural historical research, if fascinating is widely discredited.   The Indus Valley civilization, we must not forget, was centred in what today is neighbouring Pakistan.

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A final example: an ancient culture known today as Jiroft lived in present-day Iran from the 3rd Millennium before our era.  Recent research to uncover an unknown “civilization” in Iran’s Kerman Province stresses, in the words of the head of the Jiroft excavation team, the goal to ascertain “whether or not the civilization that lived here is older than that of Mesopotamia”.

That is, older than that in what today is neighbouring Iraq.

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The past can only be seen through the present.  This first post in what I hope will be an interesting set of not entirely idle musings on architecture, therefore, begins by way of a warning: caveat lector.


Capsule 101                1 February 2014

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