PREHISTORIC ARCHITECTURE


PREHISTORIC ARCHITECTURE
   The earliest known architecture in human history is found in the prehistoric period called the Upper Paleolithic Age, which dates from around 40,000 BC to around 7000 BC. While earlier humans lived in Africa and Asia, the receding Ice Age and the extensive climate changes that occurred in Europe during these years set the stage for dramatic changes in the life of Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon humans, which allowed for a more settled lifestyle and more extensive forms of shelter. Archaeological evidence of early architecture is difficult to reconstruct because most structures were created with fibrous materials that decay over time. Instead, architectural anthropologists have argued that Paleolithic humans did not "invent" architecture, but gradually began to define and structure their surrounding environment to create spaces that allowed them to better understand their place in the world. Thus, surviving stone tools that were clearly used to cut plant materials must suggest the creation of camping sites during a period that predates traditional notions of architectural origins. However, if architecture is defined in its most general sense as a human-made enclosure created with an aesthetic intent, it is easy to understand how a choice of camping sites, selection of building materials, and use of new techniques such as binding, bundling, and staking were not only functional aspects of architecture but could also reveal simple aesthetic principles such as categorical polarity and proportional harmony.
   Cro-Magnon peoples made tools of bone and antler carved with images of animals and other organic forms, while also painting images of hunting scenes on the internal walls of caves. Such images not only reveal a socially organized society, but one that demonstrates the earliest form of an aesthetic context in such creations. That aesthetic quality can also be found in the earliest known shelters. These structures are typically oval huts made of branches, animal hides, or even bone, with a hearth in the center. Larger huts might have more than one fire pit, with the interior space sectioned into different task areas. Although most wood dwellings do not survive over time, a Paleolithic village excavated at Mezhirich (in the Ukraine) dates to around 15,000 BC and reveals a cluster of huts made of woolly mammoth bones. The bones provided an intricate framework for structures that were probably covered by animal hide. The huts range in diameter from 13 to 33 feet, and 15 hearths have been excavated, revealing ashes and charred bones. In some cases, the dirt floors were colored with powdered ocher.
   From the Mesolithic to the Neolithic era, architecture became more fully developed. People began to domesticate animals and wild grasses, which meant that life was less transient, necessitating more permanent dwellings. As humans started to hunt and farm, communal tasks were divided up in a more sophisticated way, and dwellings and villages reflect this increase in human collaboration with a more structurally complex architectural system. Most buildings during this time were made of timber with a post-and-lintel structural system, in which timber formed a flat roof that spanned the width of the room and was supported by posts. The posts could then be filled in with woven branches covered with mud, which would dry to create a sturdy wall structure. This technique is known as wattle and daub. Larger structures might have a ridgepole, a long horizontal beam running down the middle of the roof and supporting a slightly slanted roofline, which was then supported internally by additional vertical posts running down the middle of the open room. In the northern areas of Europe, dwellings were made of masonry, and many of these stone structures have survived today. One such example, which dates to around 3100 BC, is the village of Skara Brae, located on the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland. This village consists of a cluster of rectangular dwellings linked by covered passageways. The buildings are made of layers of flat stones, stacked up without mortar but layered to slope inward slightly and form a corbelled structural system. In this system of corbelling, the walls rise up and come together gradually; the smaller open roof would likely have been covered with wood and turf. Inside the dwellings, stone seats, stone bed enclosures, a hearth, and storage niches create a clearly defined interior.
   Stone ceremonial structures also began to appear in the Neolithic Age. Large stone alignments can be found across Europe, such as the menhir alignment at Menec in Carnac, France, from around 3700 BC. Here rows and rows of large vertically placed rocks called megaliths appear, which when placed upright individually are called menhirs. Circular stone arrangements are also found across Europe, and they are called "cromlechs." These sites certainly had a ceremonial function much like the permanent megalithic tomb structures that also appear in the Neolithic period. The tomb site at Newgrange in Ireland is the most elaborate system of passage graves known today. This complex dates to around 3000 BC and consists of a series of burial chambers made of large rocks placed vertically into the ground and then covered with smaller rocks and dirt to create a mound. The construction rocks were engraved with abstract geometric designs of circles and spirals. Narrow entrance passages, which give the name "passage grave," lead into the central burial chamber, which is aligned so that on the summer solstice a ray of sunlight shines directly into the center of the burial area.
   Clearly, the cyclical nature of life, with the passing of the seasons, and the agrarian cultures were central to the religious beliefs of Neolithic peoples. This emphasis is seen even more clearly at the most famous Neolithic site of Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain in England, which dates from between 2700 and 1500 BC. This "henge," or circle, is made of megaliths formed into a post-and-lintel system to create a circle surrounded by a ditch. Inside the circle, a second group of stones forms a horseshoe shape. Much has been written about the logistics of bringing these large stones to this region of England, as well as the mathematical precision needed to calculate the exact day of the summer solstice, the morning in which the sun rises directly over the heel stone, as can be seen from the center of the horseshoe.
   Current research continues to reveal more Paleolithic and Neolithic sites from France, Spain, northern Italy, Greece, Central Europe, Siberia, Iran, and into Africa; with this research, more architectural examples from this era will probably be revealed and can give us a better understanding of prehistoric culture.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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