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Prehistoric buildings hold an overlooked social complexity

The discovery of the oldest known wooden stairway in Europe, preserved in an Alpine saltmine, revealed astonishing levels of design sophistication among some of our distant ancestors. Timothy Taylor muses on Bronze Age construction and placemaking and the effects that prehistoric architecture may have had on social control.

In 1343 BC, two years before the birth of Tutankhamun, a pine tree in the Austrian Alps was felled and hewn into a wooden stairway.  The precise date is known because the wood, like the boy king’s body, was preserved by salt – though by accident rather than design – and its annual growth rings can be matched to a section of the long, bar code-like European dendrochronological sequence.

Abandoned by Bronze Age salt miners, the stairway was rediscovered in 2003 by Viennese archaeologists at the World Heritage site of Hallstatt and excavated in situ within a collapsed prehistoric shaft that remains too dangerous for public access. The stairway was movable, and modular: the five metre section that has been revealed features split-trunk side runners with terminal ends shaped to allow further sections to be attached with pegs. Each step, wide enough for three adults abreast, has a variable tread angle that can be locked level to match any descent gradient.

Had the stairway not survived, we could not have imagined its sophistication. It is an object lesson in ancient skill and modern ignorance. When we try to grasp the scale and scope of the built environment in the distant past we have to accept that the great majority of what was carpentered, glued, woven, plastered and thatched has since been lost. What was once dramatically three dimensional becomes a vague 2D discolouration of the soil, and then only if things burned or were left to rot.

Most of what was erected was later dismantled, perhaps reassembled, adapted, and eventually recycled and cannibalised. This seems true of the wooden temples known as Kreisgrabenanlagen built around 4700 BC all across central Europe: their concentric ditches, entranceways and palisades, though large-scale, were decommissioned shortly after the completion of the time-factored rituals they hosted. The fugal variance of these sites, and their alignment on a variety of passing celestial conjunctions, implies a high degree of planning and oversight by inspired, competitive and highly knowledgeable individuals.

The grand cultural evolution of built space was the subject of a locus classicus of archaeology, V Gordon Childe’s 1950 essay in the Town Planning Review titled ‘The Urban Revolution’. In it, the Australian prehistorian argued that there had been three major socio-economic and structural revolutions in the evolution of our species.

The last, the Industrial, had been prefigured by the Urban. That, in turn, had depended on the appearance of settled village life in the Neolithic (or Agricultural) Revolution, which Childe had examined close-up through his excavation of Skara Brae on Orkney. Agglomeration into larger and more permanent settlement began to accelerate 10,000 years ago in China and the Fertile Crescent, as economies intensified in a period of post-glacial warming.

Childe was right to argue that the city, emerging in various forms within the last five thousand years, facilitated the emergence of social classes by allowing craftspeople and administrators to be ‘bought out’ of subsistence production in order to support rulers who identified themselves as gods.

But reconstructing the past on the basis of what partial and skewed evidence survives, we constantly risk the misrepresentation of our ancestors’ intelligence, even as we rightly deny them the fantastic powers envisioned by fringe literature. The latter also, curiously enough, suffers from failure of imagination, being specially obsessed by the apparently mystical presence of stone-built pyramids in widely separated locations worldwide, as if the form were not such a basic, stable, even easy solution for gaining height that it must have been independently invented many times over. Social and ritual purposes varied but a quotidian urge to impress and intimidate remains discernable, even from the ruins.

The Hallstatt stairway prompts the far more interesting reflection that what really dominated the skylines of prehistory were perishable, organic (and probably predominantly non-pyramidical) structures, of sorts whose existence must be inferred. If Bronze Age people descended in such style hundreds of feet below the earth, using a modular and site-adaptable technology, then they certainly had the capacity to ascend, architecturally speaking, well above it, but only sometimes in stone.

Vitruvius long since noted that the triglyphs and metopes of Greek temple masonry were echoes of the projecting ends of timber beams and rafters and the gaps between them, and it has often been mooted that the morticed trilithons at Stonehenge emulate a carpentry technique.

This conjecture has been given added plausibility by the recent excavation on Salisbury Plain of Neolithic houses whose ground plans include rooms with what must surely be side dressers of exactly the same size as the iconic stone-shelved ones at Skara Brae, facing on to identically located central box hearths. So rather than a one-off, the Orcadian site was simply the standard module, expressed skeuomorphically in stone on a timber-poor off-shore island.

A similar inference can be drawn from the far earlier yurt-like dwellings of the Upper Palaeolithic steppe hunters. These,  constructed on a mammoth-tusk frame, surely echo wood-framed prototypes developed in more temperate zones to the south. Pavlovian Culture houses from this Ice Age period, some 25,000 years ago, discovered in the Czech Republic, had coal-fired hearths and formed settlements where hundreds of people may have coexisted; this tends to give the lie to Childe’s contention that only the much later invention of agriculture allowed systematic village life.

It also challenges the attractive idea that before the invention of the city, however defined, life was somehow healthier and more in balance with nature. Although we cannot now examine the lungs of the Pavlovians, those of the mummified Inuit inhabitants of Qilakitsoq, who lived under very similar conditions in Greenland around AD1460, were horribly clogged with soot. Going without fire was not an option; a well-designed chimney could have helped but such a thing is a real architectural flourish. Many seasonally occupied, and even some permanently occupied, dwellings do not have them even today, and their occupants wake and sleep in carcinogenic smoke.

Although the planet now seems overburdened with cities, their enduring attraction may be easier to understand if we consider the possible original function of permanent villages as they differentiated themselves from earlier and more mobile settlements. Neither Skara Brae in Orkney, nor the earlier, much larger, farming village of Çatalhöyük, on the Konya Plain in central Anatolia, facilitated privacy.

Rooms are small, with communal sleeping areas and single entrances – in the case of Çatalhöyük, in full public view, via the roof. These environments were ideal for the close monitoring of behaviour and association. The selective breeding of new-fangled flocks and herds upon which communities depended indubitably led to close attention to patterns of human breeding.

The house was sensed as the extension of the body, and both were communally regulated. No longer was there the freedom of an extensive zone of wilderness as a setting for the varied sexual behaviours that we now understand are part of our primate legacy.

Oversight extended well beyond reproductively related behaviours. The reason that the Hallstatt stairway was so wide, despite the challenge of construction underground, may well be that it could allow an overseer to stand centrally, regulating miners who ascended with salt-laden rucksacks on one side, and descended unladen on the other. The built past was not just more technically accomplished than we have sometimes imagined; it was refined also in terms of social control.

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