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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
     Caves and tents
     From tents to round houses
     Straight walls with windows
     Stone Age graves and temples

Early civilizations
The east
Rock-cut architecture
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15th - 16th century
17th - 18th century
19th century
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Occasional caves and temporary tents

Early humans are often thought of as dwelling in caves, largely because that is where we find traces of them. The flints they used, the bones they gnawed, even their own bones - these lurk for ever in a cave but get scattered or demolished elsewhere.

Caves are winter shelter. On a summer's day, which of us chooses to remain inside? The response of our ancestors seems to have been the same. But living outside, with the freedom to roam widely for the purposes of hunting and gathering, suggests the need for at least a temporary shelter. And this, even at the simplest level, means the beginning of something approaching architecture.


Confronted with the need for a shelter against sun or rain, the natural instinct is to lean some form of protective shield against a support - a leafy branch, for example, against the trunk of a tree.

If there is no tree trunk available, the branches can be leant against each other, creating the inverted V-shape of a natural tent. The bottom of each branch will need some support to hold it firm on the ground. Maybe a ring of stones. When next in the district, it makes sense to return to the same encampment. The simple foundations will have remained in place, and perhaps some of the superstructure too. This can be quickly repaired.


The first reliable traces of human dwellings, found from as early as 30,000 years ago, follow precisely these logical principles. There is often a circular or oval ring of stones, with evidence of local materials being used for a tent-like roof.

Such materials may be reeds daubed with mud in wet areas; or, in the open plains, mammoth bones and tusks lashed together to support a covering of hides. A good example of such an encampment, from about 25,000 years ago, has been found at Dolni Vestonice in eastern Europe.


From tents to round houses: 8000 BC

Once human beings settle down to the business of agriculture, instead of hunting and gathering, permanent settlements become a factor of life. The story of architecture can begin.

The tent-like structures of earlier times evolve now into round houses. Jericho is usually quoted as the earliest known town. A small settlement here evolves in about 8000 BC into a town covering 10 acres. And the builders of Jericho have a new technology - bricks, shaped from mud and baked hard in the sun. In keeping with a circular tradition, each brick is curved on its outer edge.


Most of the round houses in Jericho consist of a single room, but a few have as many as three - suggesting the arrival of the social and economic distinctions which have been a feature of all developed societies. The floor of each house is excavated some way down into the ground; then both the floor and the brick walls are plastered in mud.

The roof of each room, still in the tent style, is a conical structure of branches and mud ('wattle and daub).


The round tent-like house reaches a more complete form in Khirokitia, a settlement of about 6500 BC in Cyprus. Most of the rooms here have a dome-like roof in corbelled stone or brick. One step up from outside, to keep out the rain, leads to several steps down into each room; seats and storage spaces are shaped into the walls; and in at least one house there is a ladder to an upper sleeping platform.

And there is another striking innovation at Khirokitia. A paved road runs through the village, a central thoroughfare for the community, with paths leading off to the courtyards around which the houses are built.


The round house has remained a traditional shape. Buildings very similar to those in Khirokitia are still lived in today in parts of southern Italy, where they are known as trulli. Whether it is a mud hut with a thatched roof in tribal Africa, or an igloo of the Eskimo, the circle remains the obvious form in which to build a roofed house from the majority of natural materials.

But straight lines and rectangles have proved of more practical use.


Straight walls with windows: 6500 BC

One of the best preserved neolithic towns is Catal Huyuk, covering some 32 acres in southern Turkey. Here the houses are rectangular, with windows but no doors. They adjoin each other, like cells in a honeycomb, and the entrance to each is through the roof. The windows are a happy accident, made possible by the sloping site. Each house projects a little above its neighbour, providing space for the window.

Not surprisingly, an idea as excellent as this catches on elsewhere and brings with it other improvements. In a walled village or town, on a flat site, windows require the introduction of lanes and courtyards. They too will become standard features in most human settlements.


Stone Age graves and temples: 5th - 2nd millennium BC

The massive neolithic architecture of western Europe begins, in the 5th millennium BC, with passage graves. The name reflects the design. In any such grave a stone passage leads into the centre of a great mound of turf, where a tomb chamber - with walls made first of wood but later of stone - contains the distinguished dead of the surrounding community.

A famous early example of a stone passage grave, from about 4000 BC on the Île Longue off the coast of Brittany, has a magnificent dome formed by corbelling (each ring of stone juts slightly inwards from the one below). It is the same principle as the beehive tombs of Mycenae, but they are more than 2000 years later.


Over the centuries increasingly large slabs of stone, or megaliths (from Greek megas huge and lithos stone), are used for the passage graves. And an astronomical theme is added. The graves begin to be aligned in relation to the annual cycle of the sun.

An outstanding example is the passage grave at Newgrange in Ireland, dating from about 2500 BC. Huge slabs of stone, carved in intricate spiral patterns, form the walls of the chamber. At sunrise on the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year, when the sun itself seems in danger of dying) the rays penetrate the length of the passage to illuminate the innermost recess.


In a later stage of this deeply mysterious neolithic tradition the megaliths, previously hidden beneath the mounds of the tombs, emerge in their own right as great standing stones, often arranged in circles. The ritual purpose of such circles is not known. They too, in many cases, have a solar alignment, usually now relating to sunrise at the summer solstice.

The most striking of these circles is Stonehenge, in England. The site is in ritual use over a very long period, from about 3000 to 1100 BC. The largest stones, with their enormous lintels, are erected in about 2000 BC.


A striking group of megalithic temples, far removed from the Atlantic coast but in a similar tradition, is found in Malta. The main group is at Tarxien, where the three surviving structures date from around 1500 BC. They are built above the ruins of an earlier temple.

The buildings are constructed from great blocks of dressed limestone, many of them decorated with patterns of low-relief spirals or images of sacrificial animals.


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