ANT 417S

 Updated 25 March 2004
 Domestic Cycles and Transmission  

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Because archaeologists discover what seem to be static remains surviving into the present, it is too easy to forget that what seems like a "snapshot" of some past behaviour is actually the accumulated residue of dynamic processes. Houses and settlements were not built all at once and then never changed; wherever there was reasonably prolonged occupation they went through growth, renovation, decay, demolition, rebuilding and many other dynamic processes. The remains that we discover on these sites almost certainly do not represent what any settlement or house looked like at any point in its history, with the possible exception of its last occupation.

It is possible, for example, that our archaeological excavations uncover houses that appear to fall into two or three types. Perhaps one type is one-roomed and others have two or more rooms in some patterned configuration. Trained as they are in typological approaches, archaeologists find it tempting to think of these house types as quite distinct from one another, and perhaps to explain the variation as the result of wealth differences, for example. In addition, the materialist theoretical position common to many archaeologists encourages them to think of some kinds of domestic architecture as very permanent and static because they represent substantial capital investments.

However, a simpler explanation that we should consider is that, in some cases, all the house "types" are really the same type of house, but were destroyed or demolished at different points in their developmental cycles. Ethnographic evidence supports the contention that people are often willing to make even to very expensive and substantial renovations to structures in order to accommodate changes in the use of the buildings and in the groups occupying them.

  The Developmental Cycle

A domestic developmental cycle is a cycle in the composition of families or co-residential groups. Jack Goody (1962) coined the term "developmental cycle" to describe the way in which the co-residential group changed over the course of a generation or two. Although there is no single, set form of this cycle, and it depends on the nature of the family, household or co-residential group involved, a typical cycle might include an "establishment stage," in which a conjugal couple founds a new household, an "expansion stage," in which the couple adds several small children to the household and raises them to adulthood, and a "fission stage," in which adult offspring leave the household to found their own households at the establishment stage.

It is reasonable to expect cycles such as this to affect the form and details of domestic architecture, if only because households at different stages of the developmental cycle have different requirements for space. They may also have different needs with regard to the organization of space, better to segregate industrial from child-rearing tasks, for example.

Although archaeologists often assume that substantial architecture involves such a large investment that people would be reluctant to change it, once built, in fact renovations are quite common, and in some kinds of architecture we can recognize such renovations if we look for the right things.

As Goody (1962: 80) notes, among the Lodagaba of the African Gold Coast,

... the buildings reflect the composition of the dwelling group. But the fit is much closer in a society where the houses are built from mud than when they are made from more permanent materials such as stone. On account of the heavy rains repair work is an annual affair. And if a room is not required because of the death or departure of its occupant, it will soon fall into ruins. The plan of the homestead acts therefore as a fairly exact map of the social relations of the members of the dwelling group.

Among the kinds of evidence that archaeologists can seek in order to identify such renovations are:

  • blocked doorways
  • traces of demolished walls or trenches from their removal
  • abutting, rather than bonded, walls that may indicate later construction
  • stratigraphic relationships between floors and the bases or foundation trenches of walls
  • overlapping wall lines that would not make sense unless the walls existed at different times

Neolithic houses from 'Ain Ghazal, Jordan

One good example of how the developmental cycle might explain variation in domestic architecture comes from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B village of 'Ain Ghazal, on the outskirts of 'Amman, Jordan.

  • Plaster floors of PPNB frequently replastered, preserving evidence of changes in room arrangements
  • Several houses show evidence of renovation
  • replacement of posts with stone "piers"
  • demolition of all or part of back room with hearth and construction of new back wall either at hearth line, or along former piers
  • demolition of a side wall and its rebuilding so that the house become narrower
  • All these appear to lead ultimately to smaller houses
  • Possibility that these renovations are related to changes in the composition and priorities of the coresidential group as it passes through stages of the developmental cycle
  • Shrinking the house's "footprint" might accommodate needs of parents after children have left, while also vacating some neighbouring space for construction of childrens' houses

Elizabeth Stone's Nippur Houses

The article by Elizabeth Stone (1981) provides a good example of both the complications and the rewards that can result in trying to relate houses to households when partitive inheritance was a practice for the transmission of buildings between generations. She is fortunate that, in the case of Old Babylonian Nippur, in Iraq, we have both the archaeological evidence of the houses, which show numerous renovations, and evidence of texts that record transfers of property ownership in the 18th century BC.

Two of the six private houses excavated in area TA at Nippur yielded about 50 Old Babylonian contracts, including seven property transfers. In addition, the houses themselves showed evidence for renovation, and particularly of door-blockings and opening of new doors.

To relate the house rooms to rooms mentioned in the texts, she made use of the unit of areal measurement the texts used (1 gín = 0.588 sq m). In examining the actual areas being transfered, and the portions being allotted to various heirs, a number of things became clear:

  • The property being transfered to each heir or buyer was too small to be an entire house
  • Therefore the term usually translated as "house," é-dù-a, actually refers to only part of a house, probably a room or set of rooms, and she proposes translating it as "roofed floor space."
  • Courtyards, then, because they are unroofed, would not be included in the total areas given for buildings mentioned in the texts
  • The roofed areas mentioned in the text can be used to identify rooms in the houses, because the areas mentioned match the rooms rather well
  • That the texts also mention which houses are adjacent to the one being transfered provides evidence with which to determine how the houses were arranged
  • There was partitive, patrilineal inheritance by male offspring, the eldest son receiving a bonus portion of about 10% of the estate, the remainder being divided equally among all male heirs, including house property
  • Because it was difficult to divide a house equally, in practice the heirs divided up rooms. The oldest son got first choice of room, then the second son, and so on until the youngest son received the last portion.
  • Rooms were typically arranged in houses with rooms on four sides of a courtyard, or on two opposite sides, or in a linear path extending from the front door. It is possible that order in which the texts mention room allotments reflects this order in the houses (i.e., going around the courtyard or back from the front door)

With this information, Stone was able to figure out which individuals inherited which rooms, and what they did with them after inheritance.

The fact that brothers inherited different rooms in the same house means that, in this culture at least, we need to be very cautious about relating house remains to households. Clearly, after the household head died, the house became divided among several different, new household heads.

Because this would have been an awkward arrangement (particularly for younger sons who had to pass through several of their older brothers' rooms to reach their property), usually some property exchanges immediately followed the inheritance.

In one case (house I), the eldest son sold out to the second-oldest, and the third son sold out to the youngest one, so that only two brothers remained in the house, and the house was probably more practical, but still not ideal. Then an outsider bought the second son's part of the house, and Stone thinks this was when a new door to the street was opened from one of the rooms, to allow this new owner private access to his part of the house. Later this new owner himself sold his part of the house to two brothers who appear to have been neighbours, so that they could use it to expand their own house. Unfortunately, to make this work properly, they would have to buy out the youngest son, who was still in the house and whose share lay where it prevented these two brothers from joining up their properties. So the "outsider" was only able to sell the brothers one room, and was left with a very impractical, disconnected collection of rooms in the house.

The outsider then had to do some room swapping and buying of rooms from the youngest son. Finally, this youngest son, Enlil-galzu, ended up with a self-contained house, but rather different in the rooms it contained from the original house I.

The blocking and opening of doors, which leave good archaeological traces, allowed Stone to trace this series of transactions in the houses themselves. Enlil-galzu blocked up doors to the rooms that now belonged to his neighbours, and these neighbours cut a new door from house H to given themselves access to these rooms.

Stone makes som other observations:

  • House I appears originally to have been for an extended-family household, including the father and at least two of the four sons (the ones who stayed in the house after the father's death), and probably some wives and children
  • House H also appears to have been an extended-family household, with two brothers sharing the house with their wives and children
  • Enlil-galzu, by contrast, ends up with a self-contained house at the end of all these transactions, and this house and house F both seem to have been for nuclear-family households
  • Differences in plan between the houses that almost certainly had extended-family households and those that almost certainly had nuclear-family ones may allow us to extend this distinction to other houses.
  • Small, "linear" houses would then be for nuclear families, and classic courtyard houses, with rooms on four sides of the courtyard, for extended families.
  • This seems to be confirmed by the rooms: "linear" houses had one living room (> 7.25 sq m), and courtyard houses had two.
  • She estimates the size of the extended family that originally occupied house I as 10 to 14 people, based on ethnographic evidence for a density of 4.3 to 5.3 sq m per person (much more crowded than in Narrol's average).
  • She also sees a correlation between average room size and the degree of crowding (as measured in mean roofed space per person)

Houses are not only shelter, they also have important symbolic and ideological aspects. The spatial organization of houses can provide a metaphor for the cosmos, or for the human body. Activities in the house include rituals, and ritual can also infuse even basic domestic and other household tasks.

Although archaeologists may have difficulty interpreting the ideological aspects of houses and villages, they must consider the possibility that some features actually have ideological meanings.

 Readings   References

Suzanne Preston Blier (1987: 118-139), The Anatomy of Architecture : Ontology and Metaphor in Batammaliba Architectural Expression.

Recommended: John R. Clarke (1995), The Houses of Roman Italy 100 B.C.-A.D. 250 : Ritual, Space, and Decoration; Amos Rapoport (1969: 2122, 26-29, 40-42), House Form and Culture; Paul Wheatley, The pivot of the four quarters; a preliminary enquiry into the origins and character of the ancient Chinese city.

Other references: Peter Wilson (1988: 66-76), Domestication of the Human Species.

Recommended sites: Neolithic SE Europe

Last Update 10 February 2004

Contents and design copyright E. B. Banning 2001-2004