The Grammar of the Archaeological Record

22 Principles of typology of the built environment

2. Criteria and definitions

Giorgio Buccellati – November 2009

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22.2.1: Constituents: elements, complexes, units

The constituents of the built environment may occur either singly (elements) or in clusters (complexes). To the extent that either is typologically distinctive, it may be considerd a unit.

  • Elements are the basic building blocks of the built environment (a wall, a pile of bricks). They may exist in isolation within the archaeological context (a single wall instead of a room), or they may be preserved as part of a larger whole, the complex (a wall within a room). Sequential moments may be identified for individual elements (the original construction of a wall and its subsequent rebuilding). When preserved as part of a larger whole, they can be defined as structural components of that whole.
  • A sub-element is a constructional component of an element. As such, it is essentially limited to an architectural context.
  • Complexes are ordered clusters of elements (four bonded walls, an open space bounded by other complexes). They are identified on the basis of the structural integrity of the whole and the way in which they define the use of space within them.
  • Units are elements or complexes that can be typologically differentiated on the basis of how the use of space actually took place in relationship to them (a corridor) and, to a more limited extent, on the basis of function as well (a kitchen).

It is important to remember that we are dealing with archaeological data, which are by definition outside the knowledge base of a living tradition (they are, in fact, part of a broken tradition). Hence the attribution of specific characteristics to any given entity is particularly problematic. In any case, such attribution must be based on criteria clearly spelled out on the basis of the evidence in the ground, thus remaining often more generic than we would wish.

We must also deal not only with identifiable wholes, but also with fragments of these wholes (isolated elements) and more often than not with their collapse.

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22.2.2: Criteria for elements

The structural criteria for identifying elements are limited to the physical coherence of their parts seen as constituting a single entity. An ordered pile of bricks (a standing wall), just as much as an unordered pile (one or more collapsed walls), are identifiable on the basis of their physical integrity and may thus be considered as elements – even when the archaeological conditions no longer allow us to see the larger whole to which they belong (the complex).

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22.2.3: Criteria for sub-elements

     Nesting is an essential concept in the establishment of typological definitions. This is operative already at the level of emplacement, where the combinatorial properties of elements define the nature of the components. There is no minimal constituent that cannot in principle be broken down into finer entities. Any intermediate entity within a wide range can be chosen as an element, and it will then either combine with other elements to form a larger entity, or it will be broken down into smaller entities which are subsumed within the larger matrix.

Similarly with typological analysis. We may choose to consider a wall as the element, and then a room will be a cluster that includes the wall as an element, while the brick will be considered a sub-element. Alternatively, if the room is an element, then the sector will be the higher cluster and the wall the sub-element. An so on.

Within an element defined as a coherent structural emsemble, we may distinguish sub-elements, which are of two types:

  1. The first relates to the constructional materials. A single stone is the sub-element of a wall, and may be described as a sub-element because of the way it relates to the element, e.g. the nature of the faces (the one that shows, the ones that are towards the inside of the wall, the two that are at the top and the bottom).
  2. The second relates to the constructional organization. Portions of the element are seen as constituting an autonomous coherent whole within the larger coherent whole of the element. Thus some walls in the service wing of the AP palace consist of three major sub-elements understood as constructional moments: the substructure in stone, a middle portion consisting of red bricks, and a top portion consisting of grey bricks.

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22.2.4: Criteria for complexes

A complex is an array of elements defined by the structural coherence of its parts. The foundations of four walls joined at their corners constitute a complex. Typically, the factors defining a complex are sufficient to allow it to be qualified as a unit. Thus a space bounded by four walls, with one or more doorways and an inferred roof, can be qualified as a room (with no roof, it would be a courtyard).

In the analytical portion of the Urkesh Global Record (UGR) there is a category called “aggregate.” This is a generic category, and to the extent that a complex of the built environment cannot be further defined as a unit, it is in effect an aggregate.

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22.2.5: Criteria for units

The structural criteria for identifying units within an archaeological context are more intricate, and may be described in function of the way in which the spaces are seen to favor or constrain the movement of persons (either within them or in close relationship to them). Functional criteria relate to the way in which the same spaces are seen to be suited for specific aspects of human behavior.

The major factors are as follows.

Back to top: 2. Criteria and definitions Relationship of volume and space

Architectural volumes act as frames for spaces that are bound in given configurations. Thus a room is assumed to have bee roofed even if no trace of the roof is found, and it differs to that extent from a courtyard, an iwan is a covered space enclosed only on three sides, with one wide side open to a courtyard, and so on.

Back to top: 2. Criteria and definitions Circulation and access

Two interrelated considerations are important in defining the nature of the built environment:

  1. Circulation refers to channeled patterns of movement for human beings and occasionally for animals. Thus, doorways and pathways define the walking trajectories. Conversely, the revetment wall of the Temple Terrace blocks access to the Terrace itself, channeling it towards the staircase instead.
  2. Access refers to the targeted channeling of such movement, whereby circulation is directed towards one or more focal points. A bread oven is so placed as to be accessible from a given direction.

Back to top: 2. Criteria and definitions Assembly and activity

Assembly refers to the suitability of a space for the gathering of individuals. Thus, a corridor is only defined by circulation, a hall by the contiguous presence of a larger group.

Activity refers to what is presumed to have taken place within a given space. Even if typologically undetermined, the presence of a coherent ensemble of installations and/or items suggests the specific activities were taking place.

Back to top: 2. Criteria and definitions Types of units

Using circulation/access and assembly/activity as criteria, we may distinguish seven types of units.

  1. Structures are spaces bounded by architectural volumes in relationship to which it is possible to ascertain circulation/access, assembly and, ideally, activity as well.
  2. Use areas are spaces that are not, or are only partly, delimited by architectural volumes, but which define patterns of circulation and access.
  3. Installations are stationary features that are the target of circulation within a structure or a use area.
  4. Loose materials: quantitywise, most of what is excavated consists of accumulations and fills. They are often bounded by pre-existing structures or installations, and it is only in this regard that they can described in terms of circulation/access or assembly/activity. In the case of accumulations (see below), the degree of compaction is generally the result of extensive circulation and activity.
  5. Accumulations result from gradual buildup, generally bounded by walls or abutting at least one wall.
  6. Fills and collapse share similar characteristics. Fills are characterized by 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 is characterized by uniform matrix (e.g., bricks), with individual inclusions showing similar "angle of repose" (so as to suggest disaggregation of a built-up installation during collapse), often not contained within bounded space.
  7. Deposits are intentional and non-intentional piling up of materials within structures or use areas.

Back to top: 2. Criteria and definitions Function and perception

Ideally, we want to identify the function which any given unit served, and the perception it generated within the living use of the built environment. Such determinations depend not only on the use of space, but especially on the associated presence of identifiable installations and/or items that relate to the service these spaces provided.

The difference from the more generic concept of activity is in whether or not one can identify the specific nature of these installations and/or items.

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22.2.6: The archaeological context

In an archaeological context it may be difficult to define such an organic entity, because of uncertainties as to relative dating, partial exposure during the excavations, and substantial ancient damages to the integrity of the system.

At Tell Mozan we have an uncommon opportunity in this respect, for we have a remarkable coherence in each of the three points just raised:

  1. The stratigraphic sequence is well understood over the entire span of the monumental urban complex (at least 200m wide), and there is a high incidence of contemporaneity of the various sectors, even when the function of some changes.
  2. The exposure is quite substantial.
  3. No damage at all has occurred in the Temple complex.

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