Structural history and structural ergology

Approaches towards a settlement genetic theory of culture

by Nold Egenter


Our modern knowledge of man’s cultural past in those spaces that do not yet offer written sources, is essentially based on archaeology. It excavates the sometimes deliberately monumental, but generally the casual legacy of past populations of this earth. Frequently it is only waste that documents - in an intellectually not very stimulating manner - early human life. From such finds prehistorians then reconstruct - often displaying an astonishing enthusiasm - prehistorical "cultures". Thus, with terms such as the Palaeo-, Meso–, and Neolithic Age, the Ceramic, and Metal Age we associate quite specific ideas of prehistorical ways of life, though these images of "culture" generally are not too desirable. The golden age? That’s us!

The unshakable confidence in these images is evidently antiquarian:the naive joy about a find considered to be an original witness of past conditions that survived to the present day. Historical positivism of this sort then readily emphasizes what the witness represents, but in the end fatally falsifies the source by illegitimately generalizing it as a specific characteristic, as a particular "culture". This could suggest a plurality of cultures where there were none, just relatively homogenous conditions of life, or, on the other hand, poverty of equipment, where, in fact, there existed much greater - but not durable - wealth.

From this critical perspective, a very simple comparison, on the most elementary terminological level, between archaeology and prehistory, proves this historically trusted method as highly speculative. We just need to compare the basic archaeological term 'object culture' with the one used in ethnology. An estimated 90%, or even more, of the object culture of traditional societies are made of nondurable materials. What then, if that, which was relevant for cultural evolution, was not durable? What prehistory reconstructs as the image of a past culture would thus be based on a culturally utterly irrelevant and quantitatively rather small part of 10% or less. The neighbouring museums of archaeology and of ethnology at Berlin-Dahlem exemplify this. The visitor may well be surprised at the material difference of the objects presented. Products made of stone, ceramics and metals in the former, highly perishable hut and house exhibitions in the latter, furnished with an abundance of household instruments and other tools, jewellery etc. Photographs show further elements of these environments:fences, traps, cultic huts and sacred signs. Only a very small part of all this is made of durable materials.

Consequently, the archaeological method is prejudiced with regard to two major aspects:it discovers only a fragment of the once factual object culture, and what it does find as durable remains might well have been only marginal regarding the once factual value system.

Those who strictly rely on the historical method will say:we have no other choice. History is a gigantic process of destruction. It only preserves minor fragments which we have to piece together. But this line of argument is just too simplistic. If we realize that archaeology and prehistory are highly speculative regarding their basic and most elementary terms of 'objective remains' or 'object culture' <2>, then this compels us to search for other methods. This is the real content of this study.

Basic to our approach is, firstly, the comparison of the ethnological and the archaeological term of 'object culture' and, based on this, the distinction of durable and nondurable object culture. This distinction indicates the lack of the nondurable in archaeology, in ethnology, on the other hand, the enormous wealth of fibroconstructive objects and instruments. <3>

Another important matter is the value-oriented classification of an 'object culture' still alive as described by ethnography. The entire durable and nondurable equipment of a living ethnos can be classified according to its autochthonous (or emic) evaluation.

In this way, the projection of Eurocentric classifications – such as the notion of stone implying antiquity, but straw not – can be avoided. Or, by refraining from talking of religion (which submits any fact to a Eurocentric view), and instead focusing on a 'local ontology' or a 'local world view'. Of course, one will always be tempted to use religious terminology if dealing with ritual behaviour related to what were conventionally called temples, shrines etc. But it is exactly this that should be avoided:the projection of Eurocentric disciplinary concepts on something which grew on a cultural soil altogether different from European or Western history. <4>

Paradoxically, it is the history of Christian missionary work that has globally accumulated considerable ethnographical material on this topic for centuries. In general and neutral terms, we consider it as 'markers of important places within the settlement’. These are mainly toposemantic structures like small temples, shrines, cultic and spirit huts, but also fetishes, idols etc. They are generally nondurable, made of fibrous plant materials like grass stalks, twigs, branches etc. and play a central part in traditional local cults. <5>

The heterogenous terminology is conditioned by the history of religion. In terms of construction and spatial implications, this type of primitively built object culture is fairly homogenous. We therefore term them 'toposemantic markers of highly valued places within a settlement' or, in the context of architectural anthropology, 'semantic architecture'.

In view of these globally found materials, it is plausible to speak ethnologically of a 'materially nondurable emic value-centrality'. The conventional devaluation of this type of material culture in texts imprinted with missionary zeal - they were classified and disparaged theologically in the framework of "primitive beliefs" (animism etc.) - should not prevent us from considering them ethnically and emically as of the highest value. <6>

With this hypothesis based on ethnology, which we may call 'nondurable centrality of emic values', archaeology provides interesting discoveries. In many ancient cultures, particularly in the Near East and Egypt, we find iconic material that is traditionally termed stelae, life–trees, sacred signs of gods, etc., which plays a significant historical part in the context of ancient myths and legends. If one takes a closer look, it is important to note that most representations depicting such life-trees, divine signs, and stelae on durable material reveal their originally perishable character:evidently, they initially were part of a fibroconstructive tradition. <7> Numerous spatial representations also clearly show their original function as 'toposemantic markers of local value centres’. (see Fig. 10/II)

The following text deals with these contexts. In a wider framework, it is related to a settlement genetic theory of culture. <8> This will be dealt with, in greater detail, in the following volume of this series, here it will only be pointed out briefly. Basically it maintains that cities and states of early advanced civilizations were formed by the successive integration of local, regional, and state cults (for predynastic Egypt see Kees 1956) over a basic level of originally economically and politically autonomous villages or other types of settlements. These elementary settlements show a specific structure, which can be reconstructed ethnohistorically (the settlement core complex based on the origins of settlement). Such reconstructions could change our image of prehistory considerably.


"Somehow it gave me a feeling of being prehistoric". This paradoxical sentence stems from a mysterious short story entitled "The horror of basket–making" by Patricia Highsmith (1981), a successful American writer. Diane, a completely normal New York woman, one day finds a basket washed up on the seashore and is immediately overcome by a sense of anxiety and a feeling of being threatened in her identity. Only after she has bravely burned the basket she is able to calm down again. How is it possible for a simple basket to provoke such a state of anxiety?

The significant aspect of this psychodrama lies in its intuitive grasp of the technological age of basket-making. Reflections on the elementary handicraft involved in its production, make the basket seem a fossil, as if it were (..."Millions of years old?"). Diane discovers that she spontaneously masters the technique of basketry and it is this discovery that unleashes her anxiety; she believes that a million–year old mental propensity has seized control of her. In burning the basket, she finally suppresses the sense of being possessed by a primitive spirit and recovers her normal state of mind.

A closer analysis of Highsmith's story clearly reveals an echo of a method which will be referred to in the following pages as "structural history" and "structural ergology". In this method, the basket firstly serves as a visual model, secondly it represents a field of ergologically related phenomena, which we shall call 'soft (or fibroconstructive) industries' (Fig. 1) <10>. But first of all, we shall outline this field with a few explanatory details.

"Technology is the science of making objects from raw materials" (Nevermann 1971:34). Generally speaking, both in the history and ethnology of technology, very little attention has been paid to the fact that in basket-making and related handicrafts there is a practically tool-less relationship between the hand (and its physical features) and a cultural object:the work that results from the process of weaving and plaiting (Egenter 1982b and 1983 on the use of the hand in the nest-building of the higher anthropoid apes). This appreciation of the elementary relationship between the hand and its work is the basic reason for the "horror of basket-making". Employing materials that are to be found anywhere, this could be a very ancient technology. In this connection it is noteworthy that such words as the German "Werk" and "wirken", the English "work", and the Greek "Źrgon" are derived from a large group of Indo–Germanic words related to the Indo–Germanic root *uer-, meaning "turning, bending, winding, weaving".

The basket shows a certain order, expressed in its structural character. Its stretched, fixed texture records the movement of the hand that was necessary to make it. Thus its order has a mimetic or didactic character, that can be read and reproduced. It is this readability of basket-making that allowed the heroine of our story to repair the basket, and not a genetically transmitted aptitude, as she thought. With the word "structura" we designate this object as the bearer of information in its original Latin sense "order, system, construction, building" (from the Latin "struere", fitting together, building up, erecting). <11>

If by "ergology" we mean the science of the tangible products of cultures" (Nevermann 1971:34), then the story of the basket in New York stands in stark contrast to modern products. It derives its horror from the fact that, in comparison with a modern plastic carrier bag, the basket gets by with practically no "antecedents of an object logical nature" (Mühlmann 1962:255f.). All over the world it can be produced by simple manipulations, on the spot, for immediate use, whereas the plastic bag represents the last stage in a chain of processes:procurement of materials, production and distribution. Thus in the context of the tangible products of New York the basket is an exceedingly primitive object.

For the art of storytelling it is perfectly legitimate to create suspense by the use of extreme contrasts. But, scientifically speaking, the basket belongs to ethnology. This is, so to speak, its ergological home. There the technological concept of the hand - work relation reveals many related instances, a multitude of bound, bundled, plaited, and woven artefacts, which we regard as various classes of "soft industries".

The class of basketlike objects includes not only baskets but a variety of teleologically different things:huts, granaries, cages, traps, hats, masks, etc., which, in a wide ergological field of comparison, demonstrate the spectrum of technological efficiency inherent in basketry (Fig. 1).

The teleological paradigm of our Eurocentric approach to ethnological object culture is very clearly demonstrated in the field of "soft industries". Nevermann (1971 :347) points out that in practice ergology overlooks many things, simply because they are customarily handled by other disciplines. Thus artistically made sculptures are torn from their cultic context and treated by art theoreticians only in terms of aesthetic criteria. On the other hand, ritual or magical implements are included with religion, although their ergological or aesthetic character is of primary importance.

Inasmuch as a consistent ergological approach ensures a fundamental understanding of "tangible products", it precludes such ambiguities. Primitive path markings, magic symbols of occupation, cultic signs, such as fetishes, spirit houses, seats of the gods - i.e. the traditional appurtenances of religion - can be ergologically approached and analyzed within the wider context of soft industries. (Fig. 2) The advantage of this approach lies in the fact that it is a characteristic of this type of soft industry that a large class of objects of decidedly idealistic nature makes its appearance. We can talk of structures in the structural-anthropological sense (see below).

The most important aspect:in the perspective of such a wide field of soft industries decisive questions arise. Given a particular people without written language i.e. a concrete situation in which ethnographical and archaeological research lie side by side in the same cultural area:How is it that ethnologists' and archaeologists' concepts of object culture are qualitatively and quantitatively so different? Is all the soft material merely new, or is the small amount of it that is old and durable a highly fragmentary remnant? (Cf. Vogt 1937).

If we seek answers to such questions, the method of 'structural history' can be of great help. We shall outline it in the following pages. In fact, it can offer a guideline, because it tries to combine the disciplines of ethnology, history and archaeology. In other words:structural history returns the basket exiled into synchronic ethnology back to the diachronic discussion. With regard to the "horror of basket–making":structural history frees the basket from ethnology, to where it had been banished and returns it to diachronic discussion.


Structural history is a new methodological development situated somewhere in–between history and sociology. It is concerned with the synchronic and diachronic reconstruction of social structures. Wernhart (1981), following Hirschberg, has recently applied this method to ethnology.

Here are a few points to indicate the scope of his important work 'Ethnohistory and cultural history as structural history' (Ethnohistorie und Kulturgeschichte als Strukturgeschichte).

Methodologically important is the reversed perspective, which is a crucial aspect of the structural historical method. It primarily depends, not on historical or archaeological evidence, but on ethnographically comprehensible, living social sources. It sifts through the uppermost layer, in which man is still vital and transmits his information on the meaning of his object culture. Structural history is therefore not simply a new type of an interdisciplinary exchange of ideas, where everyone represents his own conventional point of view. Representatives of various disciplines sit around the same table, all having equal rights, and jointly decide what has to be searched for. A definitely multidisciplinary method of cultural history, which sets quite new priorities. It does not just content itself with casual 'finds', but searches for specific sources relevant to the human context. It opposes the disciplinary historicist splitting of sources and includes all sources significant to the human condition in one structural historical approach. It furthermore becomes evident that with this method, the conventional methods based on dating sources block the view on continuous lines of cultural history. These are cut up, like a sausage, into little pieces, the various periods.

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