Some Research Problems in the Framework of wider Anthropological Horizons

Report presented at the Colloquium AGUS-ARS-SAM
Münchenwiler (Switzerland),
22./ 23. Aug 1997

Study group for prehistorical research
in Switzerland
Group for the study of provincial-Roman archaeology in Switzerland
Swiss cooperative association
for the Archaeology of the Middle Ages and Modern Times
In cooperation with the Swiss national office for conservation of the cultural heritage (NIKE), Berne

By Nold Egenter



In the ethnological (or folkloristic) domain of architectural research the house - as an animated unit - appears mostly as a highly complex environment, which - besides economical - includes also ritual and cultic, as well as artful and aesthetic, in addition architectural and spatial dispositions. Thus, the human dwelling can be considered as the ontologically basic cell of a culture. I refer here first to my investigations into the 'primitive in architecture' in general (Egenter 1992k), second, to the traditional Japanese house and third, to the house, and the environment of the Ainu in the north of Japan (Egenter 1990f, 1991a, e, 1994d).

In contrast to this, in the domain of archaeological house research, not only the human and social orders have disappeared, the objective structural orders of buildings are found only in a highly fragmented condition. In most cases it is very difficult to reconstruct their original meaning. There are strong risks to retro-project modern-technical concepts (e.g. functional) or evolved disciplinary ideas (e.g. 'ornament' in the framework of art theory, or concepts of mediaeval scholasticism like 'sacred') on the finds. This might considerably distort the the interpretation of the materials. If ethnographical surveys are compared with reports on prehistoric finds and their interpretations, this problem shows up very clearly. What is important in ethnological surveys, namely the onto logical dimension - is in most cases entirely lacking in prehistoric finds. It then runs the risk to be interpreted with modern projections. <1>

Architectural-Ethnology: expansion of the horizon

Stimulated mainly by the 'architectural crisis' of the late sixties, a worldwide movement of architectural research has fast developed in the last decennies (Rapoport 1969 and many others). It explores architecture globally in its ethnological and anthropological dimensions and it tries to systematically classify these materials (Egenter 1992k, 1997a). Dominant in this new branch of research is above all the ethnological domain. It became clear, that the traditionally narrow viewpoint of architectural historians supports questionable theories in architecture. In addition, the factual manifold of built form is not at all represented adequately in ethnology. Ethnographers working in the field were fixed on mobile 'object culture' which could be exhibited in the museums at home. The immobile house was neglected. < 2> But now the horizons are opened. Tremendous changes are on the way. <3> Many institutions are supporting worldwide research into architectural ethnology. < 4>

Architectural-Anthropology: a new systematic approach

One particular domain defines architectural research as architectural-anthropology (Egenter 1990k, 1992k). This frees the term 'architecture' from its merely subjective basis, defines it objectively as 'all what man and his precursors build and have built. Basic is the term 'constructivity' (constructive behaviour) used by the Yerkes (1929). New phenomena move into the foreground of our view, e.g. the routined and learned nest building behaviour of the great apes (that is chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans; zoological: 'pongidae'). In regard to the origins of building, the so called 'shelter-theory' (huts and wind screens as protection from weather) loses its validity. 'Architecture' shows itself in the new light of a scientific evolutionary theory.


Fundamentally based on Yerkes' term 'constructivity', architectural anthropology works with the following classification:

Subhuman architecture

Nest building of the great apes (pongids). All three kinds are experienced nest builders (daily at least 1 nest). Despite the Yerkes' urgent suggestion, to consider this phenomenon as the beginning of a constructive evolution of artifact behaviour (constructivity), the nest building behaviour was submerged in the wider circle of 'social behaviour' - unfortunately until today. The nest building of the chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans offers completely new data for protocultural behaviour (night-camps).

Semantic architecture

Implies built signs in the landscape. They are basically without interior space, show 'territorio-semantic' and 'structuro-symbolic' functions. Conventionally semantic architecture was described in the history of religions under the following terms: Life tree (historically, archaeologically, e.g. Assyrian life trees), fetish, spirit huts etc. ( in the ethnology of religion, usually interpreted in the framework of 'primitive beliefs'), May tree, etc. (folklore, usually related to agrarian fertility-cults). What is most important in regard to this phenomenon: 'semantic architecture' appears in all known cultures always in the spatial core of settlements and is locally considered of highest onto logical values (sacred). In the anthropological framework 'semantic architecture' is the genetic nucleus of territorio-semantic and structuro-symbolic conditions. Phenomenologically it offers a wide field of forms of an incredible diversity. Very likely it is the experimental field of premodern architectural form (e.g. plant columns of temples in Ancient Egypt).

Domestic architecture

Built form that provides interior space for objects (storage), animals (cage, stable) and persons ( roof-hut, tent, house). Research emphasises the vital conditions of ethnology. Only these domains allow the reconstruction of a non-fragmented systematic anthropological base. In this context history and archaeology are searching for evidence for ethnologically reconstructed structural concepts. In the framework of the 'ethno-(pre-)historical' outlook, the house is not considered as an individual unit anymore, but as being composed of different, primarily semantic elements with their specific own developments (place marking [sacred place], gate marking, roof, fire, place, etc.).

Sedentary architecture

The term implies temporary or permanent forms of the settlement organisation as a synthesis of partly semantic and partly domestic architecture forming a higher unit. Here too, the concept of primarily semantic, nuclear border marking and its superseding with domestic forms allows surprising new insights into the continuity of human settlement structures. General principles of the spatial organisation of the house, of the courtyard, of the settlement can be reconstructed. We obtain general schemes like the 'access-place-scheme', or the 'vertical polarity scheme'.

Thus, the 'access-place-scheme' is found to be fairly homologous in the huts and tents of the Siberian peoples (Ränk 1949). Dagobert Frey (1949) provides similar conclusions in regard to Afro-Eurasian sacred architecture. The 'access-place-scheme' is the general and most important feature of very different architectures like the temples of Ancient Egypt, or of Ancient India, of Buddhistic temples in China and Japan as well as Christian churches and cathedrals, irrespective of their different styles. Most likely, anthropologically, it can be considered as the most universally valid phenomenon of architecture.

Global organisational structures of architecture

For prehistoric house research this anthropologically wider view on globally valid structures of spatial organisation could be of great importance. The anthropological perspective provides a hypothetical knowledge, which can be tested on its validity in the archaeological work. In the following some problem circles and theses. < 4>


In many cases the planimetric disposition of house, courtyard and surrounding topography is not organised functionally according to practical needs, but represents rather a local development based on traditions of cultic demarcation. The more developed level of the 'domestic architecture' reproduces the spatial structure as organised by the evidently primary layer in which 'semantic architecture' defines space according to the access-place scheme (like gate and altar in a temple or church). Throughout all secondary developments of the domestic level, the primary layer remains present, either temporarily in the form of cyclic rites or cults, or permanently through 'indicators, that is decoration entrance gate and sanctuary with explicit plant ornaments. If the cult system is still valid (like for instance in Japanese Shinto), the ritual or cultic demarcations represent high onto logical values. They are places where deities reside.

The spatial organisation of the house and of its environments thus always seems to follow a more deeply rooted tradition of spatial organisation, which operates toposemantically with pre-domestic signs ('semantic architecture'). The human residential domain is always demarcated with the primary polar scheme 'entrance-place'. The primarily defined room system is then merely interpreted with more developed levels of building. The primary place-making markers of the rooms survive as places which show the ontologically highest values.

On a worldwide level the traditional house confronts us with inhomogeneous spatial values of rooms and room-parts (holy corner etc.; door-and threshold rites; gate and altar decorations at house related festivals). Usually these rites and festivals are attributed to 'primitive' religious beliefs or superstitions. We can now understand them scientifically as a meaningful survival of earliest levels of human spatial control. The fibroconstructive character of this type of 'semantic architecture' often also transmits itself into more developed domestic forms. The art expert then speaks of 'house-decoration'.

If we manage to support this elementary principle of spatial organisation both of the residential and settlement domain ethno-historically ('gate and place marking', 'acces-place-scheme'; Egenter 1980b), it can be used also hypothetically in the archaeological interpretation. On the level of dwelling, highly valued axial systems and corresponding ground plans can be preserved quite tenaciously through formally very heterogeneous house traditions (Egenter 1991a, e). Correlations related to horizontal plans can therefore be considered as much more stable factors in architectural research than external formal conditions (Ränk 1949/ 51; Frey 1949).


Elements of house form conventionally interpreted functionally may change their significance in the anthropological context . Roof, doors, gates and supporting parts (columns) as well as the fire place may be considered as independent developments. The house appears not as formal unit anymore, as this was basically evident for Amos Rapoport in his book 'Built form and culture' (1969). The house can now be understood as a synthesis of different individual evolutionary components. This is a much more plausible and clear explanation for the enormous manifold of house forms.


If the roof is derived from semantic prototypes and interpreted as a primary form of human shelter in the form of roof-huts it becomes evident that semantic and symbolic characteristics developed in the semantic class of architecture continue to be expressed also in the domain of evolved domestic forms. Formal principles developed on the semantic level can be conserved conserved over long times and may found to have spread over wide areas (Domenig 1980). Thus, the 'ideology' of 'built form' develops in the primary domain of 'semantic architecture' and continues to be maintained into the new developments of 'domestic architecture' and 'sedentary architecture'.

Fire place

In the wider framework of 'constructivity' and 'polarity' the fire place becomes a 'flaming building'. Its widespread symbolisms become plausible. We can also understand its broad functional spectre between practical use and cult (Egenter 1980b, 1982a). Whether inside or outside the house, the pre-modern hearth is always implicitly part of the whole history of the fire.

Doors and gates

Doors and gates act as thresholds in the concept of polar space and thus have a great meaning. Towards outside they demarcate the inside, protect the inside from the outside. Both components being diametrically different ontologically, their paradoxical relation (connect/disconnect) is extremely important. Here too we have enormous source materials, ethnologically as well as historically. There are also linear relations. There is a close evolutionary relationship between 'primitive' fibroconstructive access demarcations and developed forms of gates, portals and facades.

Thus, architectural research on the level of evolutionary theory sheds new light on various themes and new contexts. What was unclear before, becomes readable, for instance the enormous intensity of loop patterns coiled passionately around important parts of Northern staff-churches.


An especially interesting field of study is the theme 'column' in the framework of architectural anthropology (Egenter 1980b, 1982a). In the Ancient Orient and Egypt columns, stelaes, life trees and other such things had an incredibly important meaning (Andrae 1930, 1933). They were physical signs for Gods (Ishtar). These deities and signs were considered as protection of the early cities and countries, had temples and cults, supported theocratic elites, were also part of early script (Egenter 1984a). Later this was also valid for the whole Euro-Mediterranean culturo-geographical era (Greek, Roman) and further into the mediaeval history [Irminsul] (Egenter 1995b).

In view of such examples we must assume that ontologically important spatial demarcations of this column or stelae type played an important role in individual houses or settlements, also in the agrarian prehistory of Europe. In the European alps many popular places have preserved similar traditions (Kapfhammer 1956). Maypoles are not the nonsensical fertility behaviour as which folklore studies have interpreted them. Rather they are extremely important 'survivals' of the neolithic agrarian village cultures. In Austrian Styria (Steiermark) we made a survey of these so called religious folk traditions related to 'pest candles', 'brilliant columns' and 'may poles'. Using maps of the villages the festivals could be interpreted clearly as territorial demarcation rites which were superseded by Christian liturgical elements. The strict delimitations within disciplines have covered up that the ritual traditions surviving in the rural districts of the European alps provide an extremely rich reservoir of agrarian settlement patterns, which could be used in archaeology. In contrast to well known peripheral borderlines of settlements, such nuclear types of spatial organisation genetically related to a 'settlement core complex' could show us a much more interesting and primary type of demarcation of settlements. Border demarcations are not in the outer periphery, but in the centre. Territory is defined from inside out. The code immanent in the signs is considered as projecting its categories towards the outside (see 'nuclear demarcation' Egenter 1980b, 1982a).

Note that in various cultures this type of column (Djed, Ishtar, Assyrian lifetree, Ionian and Corinthian columns, Irminsul, maypole) always appears in a cultic context. It always expresses the highest values of a culture, is part of what we call religion and at the same time represents a formal principle which we call 'categorical polarity', a materia-bound aesthetic 'coincidentia oppositorum' or 'pro-portion' (here not taken in the abstract mathematical sense, but empirically as 'polarity' of geometrical cylinder and plant capital). At the same time we manage to show anthropologically that this type of fibrous column might have been the model of a primary cognitive system which worked with harmonious analogies, then we might become aware that with the concept of 'semantic architecture' we have found something very basic for the understanding of primary evolutionary processes of culture, in regard to aesthetics, religion and philosophy: they were early models of human world view (or 'ontology') and therefore managed to keep a surprising cultural continuity (e.g. Ionian or Corinthian column: from ancient Greece to modern classicistic villas).


Space is not homogeneous in the traditional house, space is not equivalent to void. Its essence is its non-homogeneity. It is perceived in complementary correlations and is conceived accordingly. Opposed categories characterise the spatial organisation. Categorically different parts of a room are organised to express tension and to form a potentially harmonious unit.

In fact, today, this is a completely unusual kind of spatial thinking. Coordinated rooms like entrance space and main room, working space and ceremonial room, cooking space and eating room, were conventionally considered as functionally differenciated. But, using Bollnow's concept of polar space, they become relational. The entrance space is complementary in view of the main room. Similarly working space and ceremonial room etc. The spatial elements form contrasting units. The explicitly expressed categories of such correlations (high-low, dynamic-static, costly-simple) usually indicate how the correlations are 'conceived' (Egenter 1991a, e).

The method could be applied in archaeology. The hypothesis, that polar organisation of space was widespread in premodern societies could be examined prehistorically.


We have pointed above already to the loop patterns and Northern sacred architecture. There is a quantitatively huge and cross-cultural phenomenon which belong into this circle. In the anthropological framework this topic shows a new dimension.

Based on primatological arguments (nest building behaviour of pongids, Yerkes 1929, Egenter 1983a, 1990i) anthropological architectural research operates with a fibroconstructive industry of prelithic origins (Egenter 1984a, 1986a, 1990h, 1994c) which can be prehistorically documented by paleolithic rock art which shows hut-like or in other ways constructively formed forms, the so called 'tectiformes'. Strongly generalised, but not less clearly, plant ornaments could be taken in general as indicator for metabolic processes. The is to say it hints to fibroconstructive prototypes and the structural symbolisms (Andrae 1930, 1933, Heinrich 1957). In this new relational system of form and in view of vegetal prototypes the topic 'plant ornament could be discussed in new ways.


Finally let us shortly mention a methodological point which could be useful in prehistorical house research. Architectural anthropology works with the method of the Vienna school of ethnology called 'structural history'.

This method does not primarily search for historical facticity, rather it looks for meaningful structural conditions. 'Structural history' thus transgresses the causality of archaeological finds by searching for proofs for a hypothetically postulated universal behaviour, which at the same time shows ontologically highest values.

The ethno-(pre-)historical method of 'structural history' (Wernhart 1972) emphasises ethnology as basic domain for the formation of hypotheses, and thus fundamentally changes the source situation. Ethnological, historical and and prehistorical object culture are defined in new ways collectively in the framework of an anthropological system.

This considerable methodological shift naturally provokes basic rethinking of the source situation. Structural history questions conventional conditions of 'material culture' in all theses disciplines and searches for systematical relations in this wider domain of sources. What is evident: material culture in ethnology is at least up to 90% characterised by fibrous non-durable materials. In contrast to this archaeology and prehistory - according to their definition - build their cultural interpretations only on durable hard materials.

In analogous ways we can postulate that the durable part of a prehistorical culture was only a minor part of their factual material culture, against a qualitatively and quantitatively much more important main part of material culture which was not of durable materials. Within this nondurable main part we would find the evolution of 'ontologically important nuclear demarcations' <6>, of which we find rich and luxurious sources in the history of the early empires (e.g. Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia) <7>. If these sources in important Euro-Mediterranean high cultures would speak in favour of our thesis regarding 'fibroconstructive material culture', then the seemingly reliable historical facticity, on which our present prehistory rests, would be questioned basically.

Human prehistory with accidental 'remnants'? The anthropologically systematic reconstruction has an important advantage. It reconstructs in the highest valued onto logical nuclei of any society and thus - in contrast to the fragmented results of conventional prehistory - finds extremely conservative structural traits (settlement core complex). This can be taken as a positive indicator and as a good reason to increasingly favour systematical reconstructions in prehistory.



A good example for such distortions is the work of Lucien Lepoittevin 'La maison des origines' published 1996. In the framework of paleoanthropological (Leakey) and archaeological results (Lumley) the study hints competently to the high age of hut construction, but uses too narrow perspectives in regard to comparisons with vital sources. The 'anthropological' development of house symbolisms can not be supported simply with some examples of French folklore studies (Philipetti/ Trotereau). Ethnological references too are extremely weak. Consequently in regard to 'symbolisms' the book remains fixed on theologically supported speculations of the 19th century.

For about 20 years Frederic Aubry (ETH Lausanne, architectural department) taught an introductory course to architectural students. They had to study traditional houses first in Europe, later in various non-European cultures all over the world. After they had studied the attributed object they had to draw it in plans, facades and sections all in the same scale. Finally they had to build a model of the house studied, scale 1 : 20. Though probably of a value of several million dollars, the whole collection of about 500 models (including plans and drawings) has not found any wider interest in a local museum or the like and today is in a rather problematic condition (Egenter 1988b).

The International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments (IASTE); Association People And Physical Environment Research (PAPER); Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA); Association of the Study of Asian Architectural Culture, Japan (ALAP); Réseau de la recherche architecturale 'Architecture et Anthropologie', Paris (RÉSEAU-A&A); Centro Internazionale per lo Studio dei Processi urbani e territoriali, Roma (CISPUT) (Egenter 1997a).

Them' internationals union for the study of traditional environments' (IASTE, UC, Berkeley) for example organises every two years an international conference, which brings together scholars of various disciplines from the whole world and interested in architectural research. The results are published continuously (Working Paper Series).

An important theoretical support is the 'anthropology of space' of O. F. Bollnow (Mensch und Raum 1963, Egenter 1996). Bollnow shows that human organisation of space has paralleled the development of settlement and dwelling. This gives enormous importance to settlement research and propagates a polar concept in the anthropological domain. The abstracted, homogeneous concept of a continuous universal void is a much later concept (Europe 14th Century; note in this context J. Kerschensteiners study of the term 'kosmos' in Ancient Greece). Very important is the premodern type of categorical polarity as a cognitive concept related to space. It is the onto logical basis of a paradox^ical world view, which manages to combine contrasting parts to superior units (entrance space AND main room). This type of pre-modern space per- and conception strongly contrasts with the modern homogeneous space. It is bound to material quality, to human environment. This empirical dimension creates the tension as well as its harmonious potential expressed in the 'coincidence of opposites'. Unfortunately modernism has introduced the universal concept in architecture and urbanism, one of the main reason why architecture today is so 'empty' and meaningless.

The concept of 'nuclear structure of ontologically highest values' was was developed ethnographically by the author studying village cultures of Japan (Egenter 1980b, 1982a, 1994b), it could be found also in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia (Egenter 1995b).

Ancient Egypt with its theocratic structure is the ideal example to demonstrate this 'two-layered-model' of non-durable infrastructure and a durable superstructure. If the temples of Ancient Egypt are taken from their fibroconstructive conditions (Andrae 1930, 1933) they can be understood as transformation or monumentalisation of predynastic fibroconstructive prototypes. Their meaning becomes clear in new ways. The temple has become a durable, thus eternally valuable document of the imperial or provincial local constitution. The cults corresponded to the primary fibrous, thus cyclic reinstitution of the corresponding territorial constitution. The origins of script can be related to these theocratic constitutions (Egenter 1984a)


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