The Grammar of the Archaeological Record
22 Principles of typology of the built environment

6. The units of the built environment

Giorgio Buccellati – November 2009

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22.6.1: Introduction

A unit of the built environment is defined as eiher an element or an ordered complex of elements to which, ideally, we can attribute a functional purpose as well.

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22.6.2: Typology of units

The typology of units depends on variety of factors that pertain to:

  1. the relationship of architectural volumes and bounded spaces;
  2. circulation and access;
  3. assembly and activity;
  4. ideally an identification of function and perception.

On the basis of these criteria, four types of units can be distinguished. These may now be described in more detail.

I will not, however, develop here a full typology. On the one hand, most of the definitions needed are rooted in common sense. On the other, the criteria are available where one may want to proceed with a more explicit definition. A lexicon of the categories used at Tell Mozan is given in the Grammar: it relates primarily to features, but to some extent it is pertinent for units of the built environment a well.

N.B.: perceived coherence of aggregation. [sentence to be further elaborated, ZGy29 mDP]

Back to top: 6. The units of the built environment Structures

Structures are units where architectural volumes clearly define spaces in terms of circulation/access and assembly/activity. Functional determination, where possible, specifies even further the nature of a structure. Notice that this is a narrow definition of the term. In common parlance, it refers to constructions of any sort, whereas in the Urkesh Global Record (UGR) it refers only to those that allow circulation/access and assembly/activity.

A room is the typical example of a structure. In turn, a room may be part of the sector of a larger building, and yet in turn, the building part of a city quarter.

Even without the presence of installations and items, one may develop a rich typology of structures. A corridor is defined in terms of circulation and access but not of assembly and activity; a courtyard is an open space which serves as the fulcrum of a circulation network, as the source of light for the adjacent rooms, and possibly as the location for the carrying out of open air activities within the confines of a house; a hall is a large space where large assemblies can take place; and so on.

Where sufficient evidence is available to allow a functional analysis, one may speak more specifically of a kitchen (presence of cooking installations, proximity to food storage, etc.), a temple (possibility of a relatively large assembly, central table understood as an altar, sacral implements on the floor, etc.) or a temenos (a large enclosure with controlled access and circulation within the open space, presence of a monumental entryway and of a temple in a privileged position, etc.).

Back to top: 6. The units of the built environment Use areas

Use areas are spaces that are not, or are only partly, delimited by architectural volumes, but which define patterns of circulation, access and often activities. Just as with structures, further functional determination may be possible on the basis of installations or items found within the use area.

An open area adjacent to houses within a settlement is a typical example: it is loosely bounded by the perimetral walls of the house complexes, it may slide off to one side where no houses are extant, and it may retain evidence of diverse uses – walking paths, work areas, temporary storage, etc. Similarly, an extramural walkway, a ditch, the space next to a well sunk in a field – they may all be understood as use areas even if the structural components are at a minimum.

Back to top: 6. The units of the built environment Installations

Installations are stationary features that are the target of circulation within a structure or a use area. In most cases, their configuration allows to draw conclusions as to their function as well.

A bench can easily be identified structurally, even though its function may remain unknown – for instance, was it meant for sitting, for the placing of objects, or as a support for some activity?

A bread oven is a typical example of an installation that can be understood functionally: built in standard and distinctive manner, even if badly dmaged it can easily be recognized for what it is – also due to the existence of clear ethnographic parallels.

Back to top: 6. The units of the built environment Loose materials

An essential part of the built environment, and generally the most sizeable in terms of quantity, consists of accumulations and fills. Rather than defining space through their volume, they fill a space that is alredy bounded by pre-existing structures or installations. They may at some point obstruct circulation and access (as with a brickfall that blocks passage trough an open area, or accumulations that grow so high within a room as to prevent adequate access to the room itself). Thus they can best be differentiated on the basis of depositional analysis.

Accumulations result result from gradual buildup, generally bounded by walls or abutting at least one wall. Depositionally, an accumulation may be inferred to have occurred through two major processes:

  1. occupation is the process resulting from human activities, whereby debris (including artifactual fragments such as sherds, and organic material such ash) comes to be embedded and compacted into a coagulated layer;
  2. sedimentation refers to the precipitation of natural material, such as dust, windblown sand or organic particles.

Fills consist of a soil matrix with inclusions not laid horizontally, at least not uniformly so (e.g., sherds or bones with different and sharp “angles of repose”), often contained within a bounded space, from which one can infer intentional and one-time dumping.

Collapse consists of a uniform matrix (e.g., bricks), with individual inclusions showing a similar “angle of repose” (so as to suggest disaggregation of a built-up installation during collapse), often not contained within bounded space; it may be inferred that the collapse happened through intentional destruction by human agents of preexisting installations, or through erosion due to natural agents (especially rain and wind).

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22.6.3: Nesting

Clearly, units can be nested within each other, as in the sequence “room > sector > building > city quarter.” In the archaeological context, the higher nodes may be difficult or impossible to ascertain – the exposure may still be too limited, or the erosion may have robbed us forever of the integrity of a building. It is all the more important, in our analysis of the built environment, to keep these limitations well in mind, so that our conclusions about isolated parts may reflect as much as possible the (presumed) nature of the whole.

The notion of nesting is particularly important in order to integrate within the purview of our analysis architectural and non-architectural elements and complexes, which is one reason why the reference to the built environment, and not just to architecture, is very useful for our purposes.

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22.6.4: The built environment dimension

It is clear that the notion of built environment is more appropriate for typological analysis than architecture tout court, which covers essentially only the category of structures.

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