Tell-Site, Multi-Cellular Flat-Roofed Labyrinth, Pueblo


    Tell-sites. As the Neolithic peasants applied shifting agriculture, they regularly abandoned their settlements and returned to them in periodic cycles. When leaving old homes, they set their houses on fire and furnished the village as a necropolis of their dead ancestors. After returning, old ruins were pulled down and new walls were erected on their remains. Every generation of inhabitants elevated the mound by adding a new storey and so the tell grew high like a mushroom. Tell Brak in Turkey was 40 metres high, Tepe Gaura in Iran 20 m high and the Karanovo tell in Bulgaria 12 m high. Most tells in the Tisza basin were hardly more than 3 metres in height. High tells were common in Turkmenistan (Anau culture, Namazga Tepe), in Palestine (Jericho I, -7,800), Assyria (Tell Hassuna), in Caucasus (Tepe Hissar) and southeast Europe (Karanovo I). The Linear Ware people in Central Europe built only lower mounds, because free land gave more space for migrations. The Frisian wurts on sand-dunes seem to be their trueborn heirs in the outer layout and design.

   The Arabic word tell meant a ‘heap, mound’ while the Iranian tepe denoted a ‘hill’. In Turkmenistan their equivalent was depe, in Egypt such settlements were referred to as kom. In Turkey several tells are denoted as hüyük ‘hillock’. Common people usually assumed that mounds were tombs for the dead. This etymology is clear in the Macedonian term magula and the word tumba in Thessaly. The Mound Culture in North America illustrate a tendency of some peasants’ settlements to turn into a necropolis and a large tomb for the dead.

     Tells resulted from needs of itinerant agriculture. Mesopotamian peasant communities huddled in large urban units reminiscent of multi-roomed labyrinths because small villages were assailable by nomads. Their settlements had usually windowless walls enclosing a honeycomb of small family rooms around the central atrium courtyard. The small rectangular rooms had walls made of compact clay or cells separated by hanging reed mats. Younger generations were expected to annex their premises to their parents’ homes at adjacent ends. The flat roofs allowed younger families to add their own annexes on the roof of their parents’ flat. In front of the central atrium we could was a temple or men’s communal room for administering ancestral cults.

    Pisé. In Mesopotamia wickers with mortar out of clay and mud were often replaced by adobes, sun-dried bricks of convex shape. The mortar was usually thickened by straw, hay, chaff, leaves, shreds or stones. Sometimes the half-timberwork was filled by this material to form a maison en pisé out of rammed clay and gravel. In a rainy weather the adobes got soaked and the hut was prone to destruction. The short-time durability of pisé houses explains why new huts had to be built soon on the ruins of older buildings. Another reason of frequent destructions of tells was the need of shifting agriculture to move to new fields. Moving to new homes was ritualised by ‘hut burials’: if the eldest grandmother died, her grandsons set the whole tell on fire as a necropolis for the dead ancestors and moved to a new place.

   Longhouse. In Mesopotamia most tells are fortified strongholds with cell-like multi-roomed units. The well-known Linear Ware settlement in Köln-Lindenthal suggests that the original form was a ‘longhouse’, a large communal dwelling whose size could reach 36 metres in length and 10 metres in width. It was inhabited by great matriarchal families and its inner space could be divided by mats into smaller rooms with individual ovens. The wooden construction stood on central pillars (with the frontal pole as a totem) and often also on the roof slanting down to the earth. The sidewalls from timber and wickers formed three aisles. If the roof was slanting down to the ground it could shelter side naves usable for the cattle. The mortar was from straw, chaff and mud. Similar principles of building constructions were envisaged in Frisian wurts and Saxon half-timber houses.

    Kiva. The roof could have gables that were of a saddle shape and often resembled upturned boats. They were decorated with boukrania (bull-skulls) symbolising cultic totem animals. The flat roof was designed as a balcony for women, who cooked meals and took care for their children. In order to fend off attacks from without, the house had not doors and windows, the only access for entering its interior was provided by removable ladders. The underground space was occupied by a central hall called kiva in Mexican pueblos. It served as a central meeting hall and a sanctuary for gatherings. The outstanding thatched roof could form an anteroom with two frontal pillars and evolve into the classical megaron house.

    The Greek megaron was not a large communal house but its hybrid application to a palace.The megara are known from Sesklo, Dimini and Hacilar where they consisted from the entrance-hall prodromos and the inner room called telamos. In the rear behind the oven there were often large jars and amphorae dug with their bottom into the ground floor. At the earlier stages their function was fulfilled by deep lined storage pits in the floor, coiled baskets and granaries. Pits in the floor could also make up for furniture, beds and benches could be formed by elevated platforms from mud and clay. There were infinitely many variations but two principles remained constant: the houses were of oblong, quadrangular shape and the overhanging roof tended to form side naves and anteroom spaces. Megara seem to have close parallels in Mingrelian houses in Georgia. Their smaller size, frontal columns and placement on fort-hills, however, suggest heterogeneous influences.

    Pagoda. The Neolithic excavations from China bring evidence for both subterraneans and light quadrangular houses. The latter type in East Asia probably developed into a pagoda with concave roofs. The Melanesian and Polynesian convex roofs slanting down to the earth led to boat-houses and aisle dwellings with naves. The dwellings with side naves were very common in Melanesia, in Brasil and in Scandinavia. The long houses out of wooden planks were popular among the Iroquois and Nootka tribes in America. The gables bore totem emblems.

    Subterraneans. The Neolithic settlements of the Amur and Osinovki culture were excavated at Kondon, Souchou in Kamchatka and in Sakhalin. The habitations of these tribes were large subterraneans huddled like mounds with many inner cells that could be accessed by large chimney entrances on logs with notches serving for ladders. A village on the islet of Souchou in the Amur region is 4 metres deep and its circumference is about 90 metres. The inner woodwork consisted of several concentric circles of pillars. New families were allowed to append their own cell and this way the whole village grew wider. The women, children and the cattle were allowed to use a horizontal entrance leading to the riverbank. Under the chimney hole there was a rectangular hearth, a pit with sides 1.9 metres wide.


   Cliff-dwellings. he Anasazi Basket-Makers (120 to 500 AD) were peasants growing maize, beans, tobacco and gourds. They lived in large centres built under overhanging rocks. Their abodes were semidugouts and subterraneans reminiscent of cliff-dwellings and artificial caves dug out in the sandstone rock overhangs. The single cells led to the central shaft which joined different storeys. The inhabitants could climb up the ladders to the chimney-hole entrance or descend to lower storeys where the men met in their clubroom kiva. The bottom of the pit was a well, a cult tsenot where the inhabitants threw away golden rings and other offerings. Such characteristics confirm our suspicion that the subterraneans and labyrinth houses had been corrupted by elements due to the Turkic cave-dwellers and cliff-dwellers.

    Pueblos. After 500 AD the Anasazi people probably transformed into the Pueblans. The current dating is 700-900 AD for Pueblo I, 900-1050 for Pueblo II, 1050-1300 for Pueblo III and 1300-1700 for Pueblo IV. The pueblo dwellings were large communal settlements made out of sun-dried bricks. Pueblos were multi-roomed habitations looking like fortified castles. The walls had no outer apertures and doors, they were accessible only by ladders. The roofs were flat and full of ‘doors’ or holes which led down to a small courtyard (atrium). One group of maize-cultivators lived in the Californian earth lodges, which were simple semidugouts with inner timberwork covered with a thick layer of earth.

    The Pueblo Bonito in Gran Chaco (12th century AD) represented a large settlement under a canyon overhang which concentrated 600 rooms in a closed half-circle with several concentric rows. Central rooms were open from above and served as staircases with ladders. They had no windows or doors and served for communal meetings at the hearth of the great family. Another centre of social life was the roof. Individual members lived in side cells with no hearths. The inner yard had a subterranean kiva for men.

Table 37. Earth lodges, publo dwellings, cellular labyrinths

    Casas grandes. The Pueblans spoke Uto-Aztecan languages, only the Keres belonged to the Siouan-Iroquois family. The Sioux were composed of the buffalo-hunters Dakota who dwelt in skin tepees, and the eastern corn-cultivators who lived in earth lodges. Large pueblo dwellings may be compared to casas grandes in Arizona, the open-air settlements of the pisé type, built of huge blocks of adobe mortar and gravel. One of them was Casa Montezuma, the great Indian chief’s last abode (Hodge 1907: I, 211; II, 578).

    The Chalco culture of Mexico seems to be a probable ancestor of the Maya and Quiché. From 3,000 BC we may detect a continuous seed-gathering culture, from 1,000 BC we may speak of a regular peasant economy. Some settlements recall the Casas grandes. There was a marked tendency to build large urban communities such as Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Palenque, Piedras Negras. Most of them had staircase walls that could be climbed. The pyramid structure resulted in an acropolis with a temple, long houses and a cult well  (tzenot) for ritual offerings. The highest priest, halach winik, had his teeth mutilated by grinding them in V-form. His earlobes were perforated and hung with turkeys’ eggshells.

    The Tupí-Guaraní villages consist of three or more quadrangular huts (maloca) sheltered by saddle-roofed structures. Such huts encompass the central place with a circular ground-plan, dominated by a communal house. The whole community may be inhabited by 70 or more people, the single huts being occupied by grand families governed by elderly women. Most peasants in the Amazon basin live in high ‘long houses’ with overhanging roofs. Some roofs slant down to the earth and resemble upturned boats (Holmes 1919: 141ff., Steward 1946-: III, 117).


(Extract from Pavel Bìlíèek: Prehistoric Dialects I. Prague 2004, p. 193-197)