Wednesday, January 11, 2012

0071 - Enclosures mental images

Some Portuguese enclosures present designs that have patterns that are visually striking from above and as a whole (from an aerial picture or geophysics image, for instance). Just like, with the natural differences, the Nasca “land drawings”. But their builders and users didn´t saw those images (well, there is the question of the possible balloons in Nasca).

But, didn´t they?

Could sites like Xancra, Santa Vitória, Outeiro Alto 2, Monte do Olival or Perdigões not have a previous and spread mental image that the architecture was reproducing? In fact, we have the metal capacity of imagining and visually conceive what we actually cannot see. We built mental maps, for instance, and we can build mental plans, even without flying or drawing.

So, how really were perceived these enclosures in terms of their plans and designs? Could this perception of Xancra ever been formed in the mind of one of its builders or visitors?


  1. You raise an interesting point about the transmission of specialist knowledge and skills in non-literate cultures.
    It is my central thesis, that these structures, like many prehistoric sites, are the product of an individual architects, working in a tradition of architecture practiced in that culture.
    There is no real need for this high level perception to be shared with other members of the community.
    Just as a sword is simply a weapon to most people - except the smith.
    Architecture/building is a technology, so there is no reason for the product to be viewed expect in purely functional terms by the end users.

  2. In this matter, Geoff, we are in disagreement. Architecture is not just technology. Of course that technology is involved and knowledge may very well be of specialized skills and of restricted share. But built is organizing space and that doesn’t respond only to functional needs but also to ideology. That’s why the Barana, in Colômbia if I’m not mistaken, built their houses with cosmological meanings where specific architectonic elements have symbolic meanings that also justified them (and not only a technological function); or a recently Indian university was built in a form of two Mandalas; or churches have cross plans. Architecture is a way of communicate and express world views, power, social organization, etc. And those discourses are impregnated in the building, conforming it in an integrated way with specific functions the builds may have.

    There are diversified way of building a house in any given historical period. The choices for rectangular or circular, stone or wood, orientation and so many other elements are not just of a technological dimension (or even raw material accessibility), but also have to do with the symbolic and discursive role of architecture. And is the same with villages.

    So, if Xancra has this kind of plan, I don´t think it has to do with technology (although technology was a condition to its building). It has to do with ideology and what we might call an “ideological functionality” that must be shared to be socially active and to be impregnated in architecture’s discourse and space organization. That is why I keep asking about the meanings of enclosures plans and if they were mentally perceived by the community.

    1. Good we have something to discuss!
      Here we have the nub of the matter, and this is the centre of my own fight for the soul of archaeology.

      At the heart of the matter there is confusion between anthropology and archaeology; while people have mental maps, cosmologies, - even a favourite colour, this is not evident in archaeology, although it can be established with a ‘live’ population.
      In addition cosmologies/mental maps etc are not necessarily uniform, the master of the house may perceive it differently from a Woman or a slave, and certainly this will differ from mental model of the builder.
      Churches can be reused pagan buildings, and themselves can become mosques; a roman basilica is just a type of building that might be used by Christians. There is ‘Christian architecture’, but studying the foundations of a church will tell you nothing of the detail of Christian belief, faith or theology; the Eucharist and transubstantiation are not implicit in the design of the building below ground.
      In short, while all human being have complex metal maps, both individual and communal, but these are not the province of the prehistoric archaeologist. I can’t know how a Neolithic skeleton perceived a landscape that is no longer there, anymore than I can know what his favourite colour was; I can guess that it was blue, but that is not archaeology.
      I can guess yours is red, and you may choose to deny or confirm this, and test my hypothesis, but once you are dead I’d just be guessing.

      One last point; I can understand why a Bronze Age metallurgist might add a small percentage of lead to the alloy, but how this process was conceptualised or rationalised is not implicit in the artifact.
      My own My PhD on reverse engineering buildings from their foundations, but blocked by a tutor who thought I should write about ‘building cosmology’ – as a professional archaeologist, how people nobody has ever met perceived building nobody has ever seen is not something I am qualified to comment on.

  3. In fact we disagree here, but I like a good discussion and that usually implies disagreement. Archaeology is, in may point a view, a social science. It aims to talk about social men, taken individually and collectively, not just about their remains. And what does make it possible? The fact that humans act according their rezoning, their rationalization of the world, and that rezoning, intension and meaning remain to a certain extent in what they do.

    So, to explain and to interpret, we must ask why and not just how. Why the site is there, why the building is built with this design and not other, why did they make animal realistic figurines and paint schematic representations? To understand human beaver, and its material results, we cannot avoid intention and meaning, even if it is hard to do and cannot be proofed in the terms of the exact sciences. And that is also why Archaeology must establish bridges with other social sciences and not just with technological and natural sciences, assuming its limitations, but not being bounded by them.

    And, yes, Christian paradigms are in an infrastructure of a church: why as a cross plan? Why is it facing east? Why the gothic cathedral develops vertically, trying to reach the sky and open there walls with large vertical windows? Late medieval architects had to respond to the technological needs of those designs, because those designs responded to ideological needs and were expressing meaning. For me, architecture is one of the most effective languages of communication and expressing ideas.

    Yes, as an archaeologist, I think I have to look for the “tools” that enable me to adventure into the world of prehistoric meanings. And speculative though, when well controlled, is central to science development.

  4. Lets not get hung up on this, but Christianity is understood on a literary level- we have the books and thought of its adherents - which by definition is not available to prehistorians. You would never be able to understand Christianity by studying the foundations of its buildings alone.

    On a more productive level; do you see the plan of Xancra as being made up of bastions?

  5. No, I don´t think they can be seen as bastions. So close to each other they lose their functionality as bastions. The location of Xancra, itself, shows that there wasn´t defensive preoccupations. Same with walled enclosure of Fraga da Pena (both location and functionality of bastions)
    On the contrary, it seems to be reasons to suspect that the semicircular elements were built all at the same time (see post 15). On the contrary, they present numbers close to a moon calendar (27 / 12 /4 days/months/phases). And the orientations of the gates leave s little doubt about the intentionality of orientation to summer solstice.
    And this pattern of regular wavy ditches (sse post 19) seems to be particular of that area of Portugal. I have no notice of it in other European regions.