Shelter is considered one of the most basic human needs. As far back as can be archeologically traced, human beings and their predecessors have sought to improve the structures they inhabit. A mark of development in the human race can be indicated by the increased complexity in living structures over time (Price, 2010).
The architecture of buildings is tied up to all other aspects of living at any given time in human history, be they social, economical or environmentally related. The type of structures made were and still are determined by the availability of building materials, the level of development of building tools, the climatic conditions, and the economic resources available to the builder.
Architecture in ancient Mesopotamia and how it tied up with economics/trade, agriculture and family life
Ancient Mesopotamia, which is present day Iraq, is one of the earlier civilizations. The region thrived because of agricultural practices carried out between the Rivers Euphrates and Tigris. Mesopotamia literally means ‘land between two rivers’. The Mesopotamian civilization had all the marks of a typical civilization in its architecture. Their cities had the assortment of buildings ranging from temples, palaces to private residential houses (Price, 2010).
Excavations done have revealed the remains of the temples built in the place that was originally known as Uruk. Other temple buildings have been found in the Diyala River Valley that belonged to the Early Dynasty. In Nippur, there have been excavated temples from the Third Dynasty, and in Ugarit there have been excavated the remains of temples from the Bronze Age.
The inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia made use of materials available in their immediate environment to build their houses. It was the Mesopotamians who discovered the use of the wheel. This contraption which went a long to ease labor had a major impact on different aspects of Mesopotamian life, not least among them, her architecture. Since bulk materials could now be moved from place to place with no difficulty, it meant that larger structures could be put up where before this would have been impossible (Matthews, 2003).
The walls of buildings were of brick mud, and the doors of wood. Like modern residential housing, residential houses in ancient Mesopotamia had one large room that would be a termed a living room today. From this, there were several smaller adjacent rooms that served the purpose of sleeping and cooking.
It is apparent that each family constructed their own housing as the general planning, style and size varied greatly within large areas of human settlements (Dow, 2005).
Mesopotamia was a monarchy, and they built lavish palaces for their kings. The earliest known palaces are to be found at the site of the Diyala River excavation at Khafajah and Tell Asmar. The palaces were a conglomeration of buildings that held the actual residence of the royal household, the stores, workshops, and beautiful courtyards famous for their gardens (Pollock, 1999).
Mesopotamian architecture is very rich in depicting the lifestyles of the age and time. Walls, especially those in royal residences were carved out with illustrations of the lives of the monarchs: their acts of bravery in war, or scenes from their day to day life. These inscriptions and carvings have been invaluable to archaeologists in reconstructing and understanding the way of life in Mesopotamia (Pollock, 1999).
As has been noted, Mesopotamia was a hub for agriculture. They grew a variety of crops under irrigation such as apples, grapes, and barley. Agriculture became the basis of the Mesopotamian economy (Price, 2010).
Architecture in Blombos Cave (South Africa) in relation to economics, agriculture and way of life
In comparison the Mesopotamian civilization was far more advanced as compared to the way of living style of the inhabitants of Blombos Cave. The latter were hunters and gatherers; they had not developed the domestication of animals and crops, or advanced in the construction of structures.
This can be attributed to the contrast in the level of technology available to both groups. The Blombos Cave inhabitants had rustic ochre and flaked silcrete tools which were used for the most basic functions like cutting (Grine, Henshilwood & Sealy, 2000).
On the other hand, the Mesopotamian civilization was much more advanced. They had developed the wheel which eased the bulk transportation of materials from one place to another, and facilitated the construction of buildings. They also had brick making skills, and their tools were effective enough to cut down trees to be sawed into doors (Matthews, 2003)..
Another difference is that while the Mesopotamians stayed in the same place since they grew their own crops and kept animals, the inhabitants of Blombos Cave on the other hand were pastoralists, as can be seen from studying the artifacts and fossils at the excavated site. This is because the inhabitants of Blombos Cave, being hunters, had to follow the wild animals as they migrated with the seasons (Grine, Henshilwood & Sealy, 2000).
This is reflected in the type of housing. Though one of the factors that contributed to the inhabitants of Blombos Cave not building their own living structures was their primitive tools, another was the migratory nature of their existence. If shelters were built, they had to be of the kind that could easily be dismantled and salvaged (Grine, Henshilwood & Sealy, 2000).
The importance of economics/trade, domestication of plants/animals and family life to archeological study
A start of any civilization is when people settle in one place and strive to improve to their ways of living (Price, 2010). Though the settling may be planned, improving ways of living happens at times by conscious effort, and at times the discoveries are made purely by accident.
However, the fact that people settle is fundamental for a civilization to arise (Price, 2010). The settlement of people between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris led to the growth of Mesopotamia. It is in this place that the settlers experimented with, and domesticated plants for their own use. Once a source of nourishment was established, the settlers could then divert their energies into other areas, like how to improve their food supply by ensuring that they could grow their crops even during the dry season.
The importance of economics/trade, agriculture and family life to archeological study arises from the fact that the concepts are interrelated, and dependent to actions that occurred in the immediate past. One action leads to another, and it is through this chain reaction that communities develop and grow.
Settlements domesticate animals and crop, the settlement grows and trade and economy are established. From this, there arises a need for a system to regulate trade, hence a government. It is like a ripple effect, and it is only when the different aspects are studied together in their entity does one get to appreciate the nature of seemingly minute historical occurrences (Price, 2010).
How economics/trade, domestication of plants/animals and family life changed over time, and how this is reflected in architecture.
As has already been mentioned, the architecture of any epoch in history was influenced by the lifestyle, materials available in the immediate environment and climate. When looking at the evidence from the two archeological sites in question here, this comes out very clearly. Architecture evolved to keep up with human development. Unlike the Blombos Cave inhabitants, Mesopotamians had started on the practice of crop growing and keeping of domestic animals.
They applied irrigation to achieve this. Because they stayed in the same place longer, they built more elaborate houses. The settlement which they made grew larger. In the process of domesticating crops and animals, economies emerged when there was surplus harvest, and trade of items took place (Dow, 2005).
Again, as a result of staying in the same place for long periods of time, there were established stronger norms and regulations that would govern the behavior of people towards their family, and neighbors. There were more elaborate rituals to mark the rites of passage in a human being’s life such as the hunting and gathering existence of Blombos Cave inhabitants would not have allowed.
Deaths were marked with funerals and burial rites; the Mesopotamians buried their dead in family graves beneath their houses constructions of shrines to the deceased, and prayers for the transition of the soul into the unknown realm (Price, 2010).
Because with fixed settlements people tended to get together more often, this called for the construction of structures to accommodate these occasions. Hence temples, arenas and social halls were built. In Mesopotamia, polytheism was the order of the day; there was a god for every occasion (Price, 2010).
Architecture in the present day and age, and how it ties up to the concept of humanness
By surface comparison, modern day architecture in scale and complexity makes Mesopotamian and Blombos Cave look rudimentary; while today’s fifty thousand capacity stadiums and hundred-storied skyscrapers relegate ancient Mesopotamia to a child’s sandcastle, there are subtle similarities between the two that cannot be overlooked.
The first and most obvious is the designated purpose of buildings. The primary reasons why buildings have been put up in human history is for shelter; to keep out the ravages of weather elements, intruders, and to secure personal property. This has not changed from the time man lived in caves, or to the ancient times, and it remains true even in the present day.
Another reason why buildings are put up is because they are a meeting place for different groups with different agendas. This is true of religious meeting places, political arenas, and social arenas. The Mesopotamians had their temples (Ziggurats), palaces and sports arenas; in modern times there are churches, mosques, houses of parliament, gymnasiums and stadiums (Matthews, 2003).
Another role that has been played by buildings which has not been transformed much over thousands of years is the role of a house in defining a family. In residential houses, families tended to, and still tend to stay together. The size of the family might vary, where at times it is just a nuclear family or at other times a whole clan of relatives. Those related most closely by blood are expected to share a home. This basic characteristic had remained the same over the years (Price, 2010).
In a way, buildings are one of the truest testament to humanness in archaeology; they reflect the fact though the way of living changes with the adaptations made by people to suite their epoch, there are some basic human traits and needs that hold constant. Class and wealth still determine the quality of housing one gets.
Superior housing still symbolizes material success and raises one social standing. There are buildings that remain communal such as places of worship, schools, and entertainment venues. Climate to some extent, still determines the kind of structures that people will put up.
The architectural structures put by the Mesopotamians embodied their way of life. Because they were ruled by monarchs, they built up great palaces, because they were a religious people, they put up temples in which they could carry out their rituals of worship.
For the inhabitants of Blombos Cave, though they did not build the cave itself, they made their mark on it by storing their treasures there, such as the recovered engraved ochre and their flaked silcrete tools (Grine, Henshilwood & Sealy, 2000).
Architecture captures the spirit of the period in which a people live. More importantly for archeologists, buildings and structures which weather the ravages of time remain a constant treasure in demystifying the secrets of pasts that on any other account may have been lost forever.
Thus, times may change, the materials and methods of putting up buildings may differ, but the essence of building, the foundation of structures people construct remains pretty much the same in the present day as it was in Blombos Cave and ancient Mesopotamia.
Dow, S. C. (2005), “Axioms and Babylonian thought: a reply”, Journal of Post Keynesian Economics, 3, 385-391.
Grine, F.E., Henshilwood, C.S. & Sealy, J.C. (2000). Human remains from Blombos Cave, South Africa: (1997–1998 excavations). Journal of Human Evolution, 37: 755–765.
Matthews, R: (2003). The archaeology of Mesopotamia: Theories and approaches, London: Cambridge University Press.
Pollock, S (1999). Ancient Mesopotamia: the Eden that never was. London: Cambridge University Press.
Price, D., T (2010). Images of the Past (6th ed), New York: McGraw Hill