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Prehistoric Architecture – The Stone Age and Early Settlements

The study of prehistoric architecture (stone age) invites us to embark on a captivating journey through time, unraveling the remarkable achievements of our ancient ancestors. Long before written records, humans across the globe displayed incredible ingenuity in designing and constructing structures that served their growing needs.

From the towering stone circles of Stonehenge to the awe-inspiring cave dwellings of Cappadocia, prehistoric architecture offers invaluable insights into the development of human civilization. In this article, we delve into the fascinating world of prehistoric architecture, examining the diverse architectural styles, materials, and purposes of these ancient structures.

What is Pre-History?

There were cultures and civilizations that lived before the time of writing and also before recorded history. Only a few pieces of evidence were found about the earliest dwellings of ancient people.

Stone Age is the Earliest human settlement. Early human beings and hominid ancestors learned many things slowly and gradually, such as controlling fire, recognizing social links, maintaining a bond with the remains of the dead, engaging in symbolic thought, and fashioning symbolic images and objects.

Ancient Civilization Methods (Stone Age)

  • Started 2.5 million years ago.
  • Period – Lasted 3.4 million years, ended between 4,000 BCE and 2,000 BCE (from Wikipedia)
  • The main source of survival – Hunting Animals and gathering fruits and grains.
    • Food source – Wild animals and plants
  • Settlements – Semi-permanent homes (like base camp), huts
  • Tools – Stone tools, wood, bones, shells
    • The evidence of using stone tools was found in the animal bones with tool marks.
  • Artifacts – Stone-made artifacts, skull portraits,
  • Arts – Paintings, and colors were from pigments of powdered minerals – iron oxide or ocher, charcoal, clays, animal fats, and vegetable dyes. Paintings were with scenes(interior portions of walls and roofs of rocks) of hunting wild animals, cattle grazing in fields, etc.
  • Fabrics – wool and cotton
  • Materials – stones, timber, animal skins, bone, clay. (Clay to make pottery).
  • Hunting creatures – Mammoths(ten-foot tall hairy elephants)
  • Advancements
    • Adaptation to climate
    • Crop cultivation
    • Cooking
    • Tool-making traditions were more perfected, and new-point flaking technologies succeeded.
    • Settlements grew
    • Religion.
  • Habitats
    • Mud huts /Small Huts – Mud with a combination of water and materials like reed, and straw(Binders).
    • Large Huts – Include multiple hearths inside and openings at the top.
    • A simple arrangement of stones to hold branches of trees in position.
    • Stone structures with timber roofs.
    • Bones into a dome, the gaps between bones were filled with moss and shrubs and covered the whole structure with turf or mammoth hide.
  • Melting and smelting of copper mark the end of the stone age and the beginning of the bronze age.
  • Successive periods – Bronze Age and Iron Age

Materials Used in the Construction of Dwellings

Materials include

  • Branches
  • Brushes
  • Animal hides
  • Timbers and wood stakes
  • Fiber Cordage
  • Wattle and daub (basket works of sticks covered with plaster)

Classification of Stone Age

The Stone Age consists of three periods.

  • Paleolithic Era or old stone age (2.5 Million years ago)
  • Mesolithic Era or Middle Stone Age (15000 years ago)
  • Neolithic Era or New stone age (11000 years ago)

Paleolithic Era

The Paleolithic Era is distinguished by the development of stone tools. It extends from 2.5 Million Years ago to 15000 years ago.

Mesolithic Era

The Mesolithic Era comes after the end of the Paleolithic Era. Forests began to develop. Therefore, timber and other forest materials gave rise to new developments, unlike the use of bone and skins in the Paleolithic era.

Neolithic Era

The Neolithic Era exists between 15000 – 11000 years ago. Further developments took place, where people utilized mud-brick to construct houses.

Architecture and Dwellings in Stone Age

  • Three main types of early dwellings include
    • Cliff dwellings
    • Thatch and mud structures
    • Free-standing stone monuments

The earliest constructions were from organic materials and new discoveries were happening continuously. The shapes of the houses were round, domes, and conical with internal wood frames and built with organic materials.

Patheolic Dwellings

These dwellings are mainly of 5 types –

  • Caves: Caves are the oldest and most common type of dwellings. They are mostly natural underground cave spaces and are large enough for humans to accommodate. Examples include rock shelters, Grottos, and sea caves.
  • Huts: Huts are built using stakes with stones as supports, close to sea shores. Then, the floor is organic matter and ash.
  • Molodova: In the Molodova, the wood framework is covered with skins, held in place by rough oval mammoth bones.
  • Mezhirich: It consists of walls of mammoth jaws and long bones, capped with skulls. And roofed with tree branches, overlaid by tusks.
  • Pit Houses: Pit houses were shallow depressions in the ground, surrounded by mammoth bones and tusks.

Mesolithic Dwellings

The dwellings were mainly of

  • Huts: The huts were of bamboo. Plans were trapezoidal and had wide entrances that face rivers. The posts were reinforced with stones and floors were plastered with lime.
  • Pit Houses: Shallow oval pits that had a roof of timber. Stone hearths were as working slabs.

Neolithic Dwellings

Drastic changes took place in the Neolithic era and people used mud brick to construct houses. Moreover, dwellings became more sustainable.

  • Longhouses: These houses were long, narrow timber dwellings, where the outer walls were of wattle and daub with pitched, thatched roofs, and are supported by poles.
  • Dry stone houses: There were by using dry stone with 3m wide cavity walls. Interiors were covered with domestic refuge.
  • Stone monuments: These were tomb structures and Megaliths.
  • Passage Graves: Long passages were leading to a chamber deep inside. The walls were of large upright slabs covering mounds.

Examples of Stone Age Structures

1. Terra Amata

Stone Age
  • Terra Amata is the earliest homo Erectus dwelling.
  • It also represents the earliest known human-construction dwelling.
  • Reconstructed from holes left by decayed wooden structural members and rocks placed around the perimeter.

2. Cro – Magnon Dwelling

Stone Age
  • It represents Cro-Magnon dwelling.
  • The shapes of the dwellings were either round/conical/or dome.
  • These houses have internal frames of wood covered with animal hides. They were braced at the bottom with massive mammoth bones, piled all over the perimeter.

3. Monte Verde Dwellings

Stone Age
Monte Verde Dwellings
  • Monte Verde dwellings – Use of organic materials such as base frame timbers, mammoth hide covers, wood stakes, and fiber cordage

4. Middle Stone Age Village

  • A fence of wooden stakes was on either side, leaning against an inclined central ridge pole.
  • The floors of the huts were covered with earth plaster around a central stone-lined hearth.

5. Stone Henge – Predominant in Stone Age

  • The stone age is famous for the use of huge rocks – Megaliths. These Megaliths are predominantly found in Stone Henges. Henges were of wood or stone circles. Henges, simply circles of stone or wood usually in a circular ditch, are quite common in the Stone Age and seem to have had some kind of religious or astronomical significance. (from study.com)
  • These mark sacred spaces but the exact purpose is still unknown.
  • Three different types of these massive stone structures :
    • Menhir, dolmen, and cromlech.
  • It consists of a series of concentric circles and U-shapes. Sandstone blocks were erected in a layout that aligned with midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset and the positions of the moon. The outer circle is post and lintel construction with stone blocks thirteen feet high. The lintels were slightly in curve form creating a circle and are attached end to end. The inner circles are single upright bluestones.
stone age
Image source – Wikipedia
Stone Age
Image source – Getty Images: Aerial photo of Stonehenge on a sunny day.

6. Shielings

Image source: Wikipedia.org
  • One of the early dwellings is similar to the types of nests of birds.
  • Huts were of branches of trees and covered with turf.

7. Beehive Huts – Village des Bories

Village des Bories; Image source: brewminate.com
  • The structures were using local stone quarried locally – thin and small. They were roughly laid in horizontal layers to fit together. Each horizontal layer was one above the other reducing in length to create a vault shape in the interiors.
  • Beehive shape.
  • These types of stone structures were multifunctional – for shelters (both humans and animals) and storage of grains.

8. Ggantija temples in Gozo

Ggantija temples in Gozo; Image source: Wikipedia
  • Megalithic Temples of Malta.
  • Ggantija temples in Gozo are one of the oldest free-standing structures in the world.
  • Clover-leaf shape
  • UNESCO World Heritage Site

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