Illustration depicting mammoth bone architecture; illustrator unknown.

Excavation of Dwelling 4, Mezhirich, Ukraine (1979); photo by O.Soffer, from "The Upper Paleolithic of the Central Russian Plain," courtesy of Don's Maps

Excavation at Mezhirich, Ukraine; photo from J. Jelinek, "The Evolution of Man," courtesy of Don's Maps

Excavation grids from Mezhirich, Ukraine; from O.Soffer, "The Upper Paleolithic of the Central Russian Plain," courtesy of Don's Maps


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Cedric Price, Neanderthal: or, the Archigram of Mammoth Bones

In Steven Mithen’s fantastic book After the Ice, a natural history of human culture from 20,000–5,000 BC, we find a brief introduction to the earliest architectural structures.

“The world at 20,000 BC is inhospitable,” Mithen writes, “a cold, dry and windy planet with frequent storms and a dust-laden atmosphere… People survive wherever they can, struggling with freezing temperatures and persistent drought.” Their survival is assisted by the construction of shelters—architecture at its very Ice Age origins.

For instance, “five dwellings form a rough circle on the tundra,” Mithen writes, referring to an archaeological site in what is now Ukraine (and using the present tense that his book maintains throughout).

The dwellings are igloo-like but built from mammoth bone and hide rather than blocks of ice. Each has an imposing entrance formed by two tusks, up-ended to form an arch. The walls use massive leg bones as vertical supports, between which jawbones have been stacked chin-down to create a thick barrier to the cold and wind. Further tusks are used on the roof to weigh down hides and sods of turf that are supported on a framework of bones and branches.

Skulls are used as furniture, and animal hides line the floor and walls, in a kind of corporeal grotesque that would make Ed Gein proud. These structures formed what the Field Museum in Chicago calls “small villages of bone huts,” adding that, when a bone didn’t work as architecture, it could be repurposed as a musical instrument—as if predating David Byrne’s Playing the Building installation by more than twenty millennia.

In his book The Archaeology of Animals, Simon J. M. Davis refers to these structures as a type of “osteo-architecture,” or “bone ruins.” He goes on to explain that an archaeologist named Ivan Pidoplichko “excavated some of the most spectacular bone ‘ruins’ so far found in the Ukraine. At Mezhirich, in the Cherkassy Region for example, he found a ‘ruin’ consisting of 385 mammoth bones covering a circular area 4-5m across. Beneath these bones Pidoplichko found 4600 artefacts and an ash-filled circular pit.” Davis’s ensuing description is worth quoting in full:

In Pidoplichko’s reconstruction the building was shaped like a beehive, similar to a Chukot Yaranga or ‘skin tent’ of today. The base of the structure consisted of a circle of some 25 mammoth skulls, each arranged so that its frontal bones faced inwards (this was how he found them). Other elements which made up the foundation were 20 mammoth pelvises and 10 long bones embedded vertically in the ground. On top of these and the skulls were 12 more skulls, 30 scapulae, 20 long bones, 15 pelvises and segments of seven vertebral columns. Still higher—and presumably for holding down skins over a wooden framework—there were 35 tusks. Ninety-five mammoth mandibles, piled up in columns around parts of the foundation, may have served as a peripheral retaining wall.

Mithen speculates that these anatomical Ice Age building supplies did not come only from coordinated acts of hunting (in which slaughtering large animals would also have meant obtaining spare parts for your house, as if wooly mammoths were a kind of living Home Depot). Instead, he suggests, “the river supplies building materials: bones from animals that have died in the north and had their carcasses washed downstream.” These bones thus arrived by, and were harvested from, deltaic processes of the nearby watershed, just a particularly bulky form of sediment or debris for which it was easy to find a cultural use.

There are several architectural points to be made here. First, it seems substantially more interesting to me to locate the birth of architecture in actual paleolithic practices, not in the terminological vagaries of early Greek philosophy (which seems to the prevalent mode of searching for architecture’s theoretical origins today). But what if the knee-joints of extinct megafauna are more important for the origins of architecture than Daedalus or khôra?

In other words, why not perform forensic studies of mammoth bones and animal skins, and put down the Plato? As a side note, I was intrigued to see that the Wikipedia page for the history of architecture, as of June 2010, does not even go beyond 10,000 BC, starting instead with the Neolithic. But what of Steven Mithen, Davis’s osteo-architecture, and our bone-encircled Ukrainians?

At what point is an inhabitable pile of skulls considered a building?

Second, what was architectural “style” 22,000 years ago? Were there eccentric or personalized methods for tying sinew bone-to-bone, or virtuoso tactics for assembling antlers into windproof screens on difficult hillside sites? Who were the path-breakers for the time—who was the Cedric Price of animal architecture, or the Archigram of mammoth bones? By extension, what palaces of mastodon ribs have been lost to archaeology altogether? Multi-floored labyrinths of cartilage and bearskin rugs. An Early Holocene Plug-In City made from the jaws of saber-toothed tigers.

Third, surely a retrospective exhibition of late Pleistocene architecture is long overdue? Even a small gallery show exploring the state of architecture 22,000 years ago would be extraordinarily interesting. At the very least, imagine the weekend outreach programs for kids.

The border between natural history and architectural design deserves far more exploration, beyond the odd science museum diorama. We have been living in buildings for more than 20,000 years, if Mithen’s book is to be believed, but nearly half of that period has seemingly been thrown outside the pale of architectural history.

Buildings, however, did not suddenly appear at 10,000 BC with the first stonemasons, woodcutters, or certified Greek philosophers; they accumulated out of the corpse-filled debris of Ice Age rivers when neurologically modern humans began to interlock and assemble bones into structures of which we have almost no physical record.

So how do we bring these structures out of material anthropology and into architectural history, where they just as equally belong?

Perhaps it’s time for Pamphlet Architecture to take up the subject of paleolithic home design.

Geoff Manaugh is a 2010 Visiting Scholar and writes as part of the To CCA, From… series. Browse all of Geoff’s posts.