Architecture as a product of culture, history, science, technology, economics, society, religion, and state




A journey through five thousand years of architecture and urban planning in the Western world



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Each generation writes its autobiography in the buildings it creates.

Louis Mumford

Friday, December 3, 2010


Background of Prehistoric Architecture
        The term "prehistory" was coined by French scholars, referring to the time before people recorded history in writing. This is the longest period in the past of modern man (homo sapiens) that lasted about 400,000 years. Prehistory is not associated with a particular place or time. In some areas in the Near East it continued until the 4th millennium BCE, while in Central America it lasted until 500 BCE. In Hawaii, it lasted until January 17, 1779, when Captain James Cook arrived to the coast of Hawaii. Due to lack of written documentation, prehistoric research is based on remains, which are used as evidence.
        Today it is customary to present prehistoric timetables based on division into regions - Africa, South America, Central America, North America, Southwest Asia, Central and Eastern Asia, Australia and surroundings, and Europe.
        The timetables presented here relate to prehistoric Southwest Asia and Europe, which are relevant to discussing Western architecture. The dates are approximate.

Southwest Asia
10,000 BCE - Man began to grow grain. Agricultural development greatly changed his life. Instead of wandering from place to place, seeking food, he settled in one place, and learnt how to domesticate animals and grow crops. The change of seasons created a routine of sowing and harvesting.
6500  BCE - A permanent settlement has provided man with time to paint vessels that he prepared, make baskets, use copper and obsidian for his needs, and grow olives and vines. Man began to be an active partner with nature, rather than being satisfied with finished products provided by nature.
5000  BCE - Houses divided into rooms were built, and the earth was plowed.
4000 BCE – In pottery making, the use of potter wheel was widely adopted.
3500  BCE - Agricultural villages became cities.  Man discovered that copper can be strengthened by melting it with tin, to create bronze, which replaced stone as the main tool for producing vessels. Man developed the plow, and began to specialize in his work. Sailing and trade practice began, along with the development of mathematics and writing.
10,000  BCE – Man used cereals, fruits and marine    resources, found in nature.
6500  BCE - Villages appeared in the southeastern Europe. Man began to grow cereal and domesticate animals.
4500  BCE – Man began to use copper.
4000  BCE – Man began to practice agriculture. In northwestern Europe megaliths appeared for the first time.
3500  BCE - Began the use of plow and carts.
3000  BCE - Began wool production and the domestication of horses.
2300 BCE - Began the use of writing by the Minoans .
2000  BCE - Began the use of bronze.
100     BCE - Urban settlement began in northern Europe.
        The buildings that survived from prehistoric times and are considered architectural works were cult structures. Homes were built with less durable materials, such as mud bricks and wood. Religious motives led to significant achievements throughout the history of architecture beginning with prehistory.
Prehistoric buildings
3,500  years BCE , man has developed a form of architecture based on megaliths (megalith - a big rock; literally in Greek: lithos - stone, megas - big) - structures made of rough huge stone blocks, probably intended for burial ritual.
        During prehistoric times, as well as throughout history, stones and rocks were associated with divinity. Examples to this can be found in different cultures: Persian god Mithras was considered as having been born from a rock, marrying a rock and whose father was a rock, Moses struck the rock to get water, the meaning of the word "Petra" in Greek is a stone, hence the name of St. Peter's (Petrus).
        Prehistory saw three main types of using megalith stones known to us:  menhir, dolmen, and stones arranged in a circle.

        Menhir (literally in Brittany French: a long stone; men-stone, hir-long) is a huge stone standing vertically in the ground. Such stones are usually standing in the middle of a field or arranged in rows, which shows that they were transferred to where they are. The piece of stone stuck in the ground is often a fifth to a quarter of its overall height. The average height of these stones is nine meters. The highest menhir in Europe is 20 meters tall above the ground, and four meters under the ground. Despite its enormous weight (350 tons), it was transported several kilometers to its place of use. Today it is composed of four fragments lying on the ground where it was found in Carnac (Brittany, France). Researchers believe that it broke shortly after being brought to its place so that its parts would serve as lintels in dolmens (structures with two vertical stones supporting a third stone), a plan which eventually failed. This hypothesis is based on the dolmens in the area, whose lintels were made of similar blocks of stones.
        The number of megaliths in Carnac is the largest in the world. More than 3,000 are found there, dating to the period between about 5000 to 1000 BCE. The word Carnac probably originates in the word Cairn or Carn - a medieval English term, meaning a pile of stones used as a landmark or as a memorial site.

        In some menhirs, there is a natural opening, which was probably why they were selected and brought to their place. Some are decorated with decorative patterns - the most common are spiral patterns, concentric circles, and U-shaped and zigzag forms. According to researchers' hypothesis, these patterns are associated with worship of the sun and other heavenly elements.
        There are researchers who find a connection between the spiral and concentric circles patterns, and the cult of the Great Goddess - the Universal Mother worshiped in the Mediterranean region as life giver. The researchers interpret the patterns as abstract description of woman's belly, from which life emerges, and as a symbol of the earth's navel. This hypothesis is inspired by the meaning ascribed to the spiral as symbol of Mother Earth among the Indians in North America. 
Apart from menhirs engraved with abstract forms, there were menhirs with low reliefs of human figures. Such menhirs were found in Italy, Corsica, and France. In Haut Languedoc region (France) the most common motifs incised on them are a face with two eyes, two arms and two legs. Nose, mouth and ears are absent from most of the reliefs. The height of these stones, dating to 2600-1800 BCE, ranges from 0.80 meters to 4.5 meters, and their weight ranges from hundreds of kilograms to 14 tons.
         The best preserved anthropomorphic menhirs are found in museums in France, including: Museum of Natural History in Nîmes, Montpellier Archaeological Society Museum, and Musée Fenaille in Rodez. Scholars believe that these menhirs represent gods or goddesses whose duty was to protect the living or the dead.
        One fascinating fact regarding megalithic monuments is their orientation. Menhirs fields are arranged in parallel lines from east to west ending in cromlech - a circle of stones. The menhirs seem as if arranged according to astronomical map. They are laid out on the axis connecting the points of sunrise and sunset on the longest or the shortest day of the year.
        The longest day, the shortest day, the spring equinox, and the autumn equinox, divide the year into four seasons. On each of these days were held celebrations to mark the event. Emphasis on orientation may reflect the way God makes his way and the direction from which he is expected to appear. Sun and moon eclipses provided an opportunity for irregular ceremonies marking the return of the sun or the moon, expressing death and resurrection in nature.
        The phenomenon of menhirs is not unique to the area of Carnac. Across Europe, there are different types of rows of stones whose number and size vary from place to place, but because most of the stones were damaged during the Middle Ages by builders who reused them, it is difficult to assess how they originally looked. Most of the rows of stones are made of menhirs, which are approximately one meter tall. The number of rows in such a site ranges from two to six, and they run along about 50 meters. In Carnac the stones' height ranges from half a meter to four meters. In each of the rows of stones, the largest stone is located at the western end. Each such row must have ended with a circle of stones.
        The rows of stones and stone circles were used as a place of gathering and ceremonies. Some researchers are trying to decipher the menhirs phenomenon. The phallic appearance of most of them brings some researchers to the conclusion that they are associated with fertility cult. Some associate them with sun or moon worship. Others speculate that the menhirs were designated to specify special events or to serve as a sundial. The motive for carrying them was probably religious, because this kind of motive is strong enough to bring people to make such an effort.

        The word dolmen originates from the expression taol maen, which means "stone table" in Brittany. The first builders used stones that were within their reach. They built dolmens - sort of structures in a form of a "table", consisting of two huge standing stones supporting a horizontal giant stone. Each of the stones weighs several tons, but those huge stone blocks are laid one upon the other without mortar. There were also low dolmens only about 1.5 meters tall. Originally, the dolmens were covered with more stones and earth, but as time went on, only the megalithic structures  remained.
        We find dolmens throughout Western Europe, from Italy to the northwest of Ireland, from southern Spain and Portugal to Denmark and southern Sweden. In Israel, hundreds of them are found in the Golan Heights and many others near Kibbutz Shamir.
        The dolmen probably served as a grave or as an altar, a table of the gods who were conceived of as giants. There were also found dolmens laid out one after another, in sequence in a form reminiscent of a corridor. "Corridor" type dolmens appeared in western France in the 5th millennium BCE.

        When dolmens are standing in a long line (like those in Carnac), they are probably associated with the cult of death. Some of the "corridor" type dolmens served as collective graves, which is why some interpret them as tombstones.
        Unlike the menhirs, around which many people gathered, the corridor type of dolmens allowed access only to a limited number of people, being structures with limited space. Findings from recent years indicate the overlap between the time of menhirs lines, menhirs circles and grave structures. These three elements were probably part of one religious system.
        Apart from the corridor type of dolmens there was another form of structure - a room with a corbel vault created by a series of horizontal rows of stones, each placed above the other. There are also structures that integrate these two forms of construction, such as a corbel vault over a corridor type of dolmen.  
         Construction method depended on the type of stones found nearby. Often reliefs adorned the burial chambers with patterns such as zigzag, curved line, axe, and more.
        Megalithic monuments have always ignited man's imagination. They provided plenty of legends and superstitions. The French phrase Grotte de Fée (literally in French: Tomb of the goddess of fate) is used in France as the name of many dolmens. The word Fée is the French form of the Latin Fata, meaning goddess of fate. One of the beliefs associated with dolmens was that the fate goddesses carried the huge stones on their heads and in their aprons as they were weaving. Other legends connected dolmens with giants, among them Gargantua, the hero of the book by Rabelais from the 16th century, which was a legendary hero known for a long time before Rabelais wrote his story. Some dolmens are associated by name with him, including: " Gargantua's Bed", " Gargantua's Chair"  and " the Giant's Bed".
        Stonehenge is a site in southern England, composed of a group of stones arranged in concentric circles. This array of stones is not a single structure, but a series of structures built and rebuilt over a period of about 1,500 years. Researches distinguish three phases of construction in Stonehenge. The first was completed in c.2900 BCE, the second took place during the years c.2900 – c.2500 BCE and the third - from c.2550 to c.1600 BCE.
        This is the best preserved megalithic site in Europe. It included a large external circle of triliths (only in Stonehenge the dolmens are called triliths; trilith, literally in Greek: three stones), two internal circles built in a similar manner, and altar-shaped stone in the center.
        Today it is hard to distinguish between the circles because some of the stones were gone and some have fallen out of position. In the heart of the inner circle stood a group of stones arranged in a horseshoe shape. The open side of the horseshoe was exactly directing to the point where the sun rises on the longest day of the year. During sunrise, the rays of the sun shine for several minutes exactly into the central axis of the horseshoe.
                 The round shapes repeated in Stonehenge are an example of a universal reference to celestial events in prehistoric architecture. Bodies that are visible in the sky are round, and according to many cosmological theories, from earlier times, the sun and the stars emerge from earth and return to earth every day. 

        According to a hypothesis of archaeologists, Stonehenge was a kind of temple where rituals were held on the dates of the longest and shortest days of the year.  The relationship between the form of the structure and the "movement" of the sun in the sky made it easier for priests to identify the times when rituals associated with change of seasons would be held. These dates had a special meaning for the primitive man, who practiced agriculture and depended on climate conditions for his living.
        The layout of stones in Stonehenge in its architectural structure anticipates later temples and cathedrals, whose orientation was planned according to the sun's daily east to west "movement".

              About 80 stones called "bluestones", were brought from Preseli Mountains in southwest Wales to Stonehenge. The question is how the huge stones were brought into place and how the triliths were built. Researchers speculate that they were brought on barges along the southern coast of England, carried by the river, and finally dragged on the ground in sleds.
Apart from bluestones, there was another kind of huge stones in Stonehenge. These are sandstone rocks called sarsen, which were brought from a distance of 40 kilometers north of Stonehenge. These stones, much larger than the bluestones, were placed in a circle about 33 meters in diameter. Today this circle is called the "sarsen Circle". Over 30 stone pillars were placed with lintels (stone beams) above them forming a continuous ring of sarsen stones. Before being erected, they were fashioned with mortise and tenon joints.
        The sarsen circle, due to its planning and design, is considered one of the greatest achievements of Stonehenge. The sophisticated engineering of the structure shows that its builders were experienced in building large wood structures.
         Out of the 30 original sarsen pillars, 17 are still standing today, bearing six lintels. The horseshoe-shaped structure is also built from sarsen stones. Five pairs of these huge stones hold the lintels above them.
        In February 2003 were published research results, according to which in the construction of Stonehenge was involved a person from the Alps (today Switzerland or Germany) whose tomb dating to c.2000 BCE, is found five kilometers from Stonehenge. The many items found in the tomb, including precious objects such as gold earrings, arrowheads, copper knives, and pottery, indicate that the dead man was a royal family member. Checking the skeleton of the man, known by the researchers as "King of Stonehenge ", identified him as a man from the Alps region.
        During medieval times, the Stonehenge stone circle was wrapped with mystery and legends. In England and France, it was called "Hanging Stones". Some ascribe it to the fact that the stones seem suspended. Others assume that the stones were used for hanging criminals. Another possibility is that the source of the name is Hengist, the name of one of two brothers who led the first Saxons' invasion to England in the 5th century CE. Hengist's brother was killed, and Hengist and his son conquered the Kingdom of Kent.
        In one of King Arthur's tales, Merlin, Arthur's assistant, tells him that these stones were mysterious and could cure many diseases. According to the same story, ancient giants carried the stones from across Africa, brought them to Ireland, and Merlin moved them to Stonehenge by the power of his word.

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