The Archigram of Mammoth Bones

[Image: Illustration depicting mammoth bone architecture; illustrator unknown].

[Nearly a decade ago, I wrote a series of blog posts as part of a Fellowship at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Those posts appear to be falling into an internet memory hole, so I thought I’d reproduce lightly edited versions of some of them here, simply for posterity.]

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—in a now-defunct link—“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.

[Images: Excavation grids from Mezhirich, Ukraine; from O. Soffer, “The Upper Paleolithic of the Central Russian Plain,” courtesy of Don’s Maps].

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).

[Images: (top) Excavation of Dwelling 4, Mezhirich, Ukraine (1979); photo by O. Soffer, from “The Upper Paleolithic of the Central Russian Plain”; (bottom) Excavation at Mezhirich, Ukraine; photo from J. Jelinek, “The Evolution of Man,” both courtesy of Don’s Maps].

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—however momentarily—put down the Plato?

As a side note, I was intrigued to see that—as of June 2010 [when this post was originally published]—the Wikipedia page for the history of architecture 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 Ukrainian forebears? 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. Perhaps it’s time for Pamphlet Architecture to take up the subject of paleolithic home design.

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 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 did not suddenly appear at 10,000 BC with the first stonemasons, woodcutters, or the advent of Greek philosophy; buildings 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?

Fewer Gardens, More Shipwrecks

[Image: Peder Balke, “Seascape” (1848), courtesy of the Athenaeum].

As cities like New York prepare for “permanent flooding,” and as we remember submerged historical landscapes such as Doggerland, lost beneath the waves of a rising North Sea, it’s interesting to read that humanity’s ancient past—not just its looming future—might be fundamentally maritime, rather than landlocked. Or oceanic rather than terrestrial, we might say.

In his recent book The Human Shore, historian John R. Gillis suggests that, due to a variety of factors, including often extreme transportation difficulties presented by inland terrain, traveling by sea was the obvious choice for early human migrants.

People, after all, have been seafaring for at least 130,000 years.

This focus on seas and waterways came with political implications, Gillis writes. Even when European merchant-explorers reached North America, “It would be a very long time, almost three hundred years, before Europeans realized the full extent of the Americas’ continental character and grasped the fact that they might have to abandon the ways of seaborne empires for those of territorial states.” In fact, he adds, “for the first century or more, northern Europeans showed more interest in navigational rights to certain waterways and sea tenures than in territorial possession as such.”

At the risk of anachronism, you might say that their power was defined by logistical concerns, rather than by territorial ones: by dynamic, just-in-time access to ports and routes, rather than by the stationary establishment of landed borders and policed frontiers.

[Image: “Ship in a Storm” (ca. 1826), by Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Tate Britain].

Gillis goes much further than this, however, suggesting that—as 130,000 years of seafaring history seems to indicate—humans simply are not a landlocked species.

“Even today,” Gillis claims, “we barely acknowledge the 95 percent of human history that took place before the rise of agricultural civilization.” That is, 95 percent of human history spent migrating both over land and over water, including the use of early but sophisticated means of marine transportation that proved resistant to archaeological preservation. For every lost village or forgotten house, rediscovered beneath a quiet meadow, there are a thousand ancient shipwrecks we don’t even know we should be looking for.

Perhaps speaking only for myself, this is where things get particularly interesting. Gillis points out that humanity’s deep maritime history has been almost entirely written out of our myths and religions.

In his words, “the book of Genesis would have us believe that our beginnings were wholly landlocked, but it was written at the time that the Hebrews were settling down to an agrarian existence.” That is, the myth of Genesis was written from the point of view of a culture already turning away from the sea, mastering animal domestication, mining, and wheeled transport, and settling down away from the coastline. It was learning to cultivate gardens: “The story of Eden served admirably as the foundational myth for agricultural society,” Gillis writes, but it performs very poorly when seen in the context of humanity’s seagoing past.

Briefly, I have to wonder what might have happened had works of literature—or, more realistically, highly developed oral traditions—from this earlier era been better preserved. Seen this way, The Odyssey would merely be one, comparatively recent example of seafaring mythology, and from only one maritime culture. But what strange, aquatic world of gods and monsters might we still be in thrall of today had these pre-Edenic myths been preserved—as if, before the Bible, there had been some sprawling Lovecraftian world of coral reefs, lost ships, and distant archipelagoes, from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia?

[Image: “Storm at Sea” (ca. 1824), by Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Tate Britain].

This is where this post’s title comes from. “In short,” Gillis concludes, “we require a new narrative, one with, as Steve Mentz suggests, ‘fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks.’”

Fewer gardens, more shipwrecks. We are more likely, Gillis and Mentz imply, to be the outcast descendants of sunken ships and abandoned expeditions than we are the landed heirs of well-tended garden plots.

Seen this way, even if only for the purpose of a thought experiment, human history becomes a story of the storm, the wreck, the crash—the distant island, the unseen reef, the undertow—not the farm or even the garden, which would come to resemble merely a temporary domestic twist in this much more ancient human engagement with the sea.

The Great Lakes Paleolandscapes Project

[Image: Evidence of an ancient hunting site; photo by John O’Shea, courtesy of ScienceDaily].

In archaeological news, evidence of an ancient human settlement, including “caribou-hunting structures and camps,” has been found deep beneath the waters of Lake Huron.

“More than 100 feet deep in Lake Huron,” ScienceDaily reports, “on a wide stoney ridge that 9,000 years ago was a land bridge, University of Michigan researchers have found the first archaeological evidence of human activity preserved beneath the Great Lakes.”

Of course, this goes rather well with our earlier look at the so-called “Lake Michigan Stonehenge.”

In any case, it sounds like the Great Lakes need their own version of the North Sea Paleolandscapes project, an unbelievably interesting archaeological program, run by the University of Birmingham, that hopes “to rediscover Doggerland, the enigmatic country which once linked the Yorkshire coast with a stretch of Continental Europe from Denmark to Normandy but which now lies beneath the North Sea.”

(Spotted via Archaeology Magazine).