Semantic architecture and the ethno-(pre-)historical method of architectural anthropology

By Nold Egenter

In very different subdomains of art like in ethnology (primitive art) or prehistory (rock art) we often find very similar forms indicating human bodies in cultic and symbolic circumstances. Surprisingly for the modern mind this 'primitive' type of art uses highly abstract methods, often reducing forms on a rigid geometry and decorating them with sometimes very strange textures.

Conventionally such phenomena are explained with magic and primitive belief in the framework of religion on one hand, and, on the other, formal aspects are evaluated in regard to artistic and aesthetic achievements, assuming an artist and his time-related means to depict the (natural) human body.

In contrast to this, the present paper outlines a new approach based on ethnographical research into Shinto rites of the village protector deity (ujigami) still found widely practiced in modern agrarian Japan. Within a tradition of 100 villages researched by the author, the paper focusses on the case of one village, where annually a male and female figure are constructed in front of the village shrines, using reed and bamboo and very primitive methods of construction (binding). It will be shown that these 'human bodies' play a very important role in the traditional ontology of the village and that the way they are conceived by the villagers (in the sense of cognition) sheds a surprising new light on the present topic 'Thinking through the body': did man have a model (semantic architecture) to culturally conceive his own body?

In the wider anthropological perspective, the paper outlines the platform which supports this new inductive approach to culture (architectural anthropology). Its scientific classification of the term architecture is indicated (subhuman, semantic, domestic and sedentary architecture), showing that 'semantic architecture' might have been important in the development of culture. Finally, the method of 'structural history' (or: ethno-(pre-)history; Wernhart 1981) with its cultural and cross cultural implications is shown to support new anthropological outlooks.

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