Households and domesticity in ancient world


How Valid is Mazarakis Ainian's Hypothesis that Rulers' Dwellings in the Early Iron Age were the Forerunner of the Urban Temples of Later Periods?

        In this paper I am going to critique Mazarakis Ainian's assertion that there is a strong link between rulers' dwellings and early temples in both function and architecture. I shall begin by identifying what it is that separates a ruler's dwelling from the rest of a community and shall then try to identify why a house would be used as a temple and the reasons for why there would have been the transition to a dedicated religious building.

House types of the Early Iron Age

        The period of the Early Iron Age (EIA) covers approximately 1100-700 BC and encompasses the so called 'Dark Ages' which followed the Mycenaean collapse and which ends in the transition to the Early Archaic period of the 7th century. It can be divided into the Protogeometric and Geometric periods of 1100-900 and 900-700BC respectively.

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        It is Mazarakis Ainian's main argument that due to the apparent absence of temples of any kind within settlements prior to the mid 8th century BC, rulers' dwellings instead served as centres of communal cult (1988: 106). It would therefore be useful to look at the range of house forms known from this early period, to identify what separates elite housing from other building types and also the evidence they contain to suggest ritual or religious activity.

        Although there are relatively few settlement sites remaining, particularly ones containing identifiable house remains or foundations, in comparison to later periods in the Greek World, Lang recognizes two main types of house arrangement; detached and agglomerated. Both types of settlement usually show that they were unplanned, featuring irregular street layouts which most often follow the local topography (Lang 2007: 183). The settlement of Zagora on the island of Andros is demonstrative of the agglomerated house type while Emporio on Chios shows detached. This may however be reflective of settlement size; Zagora may well have begun with a detached house arrangement but its location on a cliff top plateau and resulting limits on space, any increase in population may have required new houses to be built in close proximity to existing ones. The change from small to large clusters of houses can be seen in the plans drawn of the EIA and Archaic remains at the site (fig. 1). This has however led to several scholars suggesting that the house layout of Zagora reflects an early example of the courtyard house prevalent in the Classical Period (Coucouzeli 2007: 169-181, Morris 1998). The argument for this does not seem entirely convincing, but I shall not address it further in this paper.

        House types within these arrangements also varied. They were most commonly composed of one or two small rooms with rectangular, oval, apsidal or the slightly less common circular ground plans (Mazarakis Ainian 1997: Ch. 1). The agglomerated settlement lent itself best to rectangular ground plans as seen with Zagora (figure 1). Geographical location appears to have played a part in the distribution of the different house types with, for example, oval buildings of the Geometric Period being mainly found in Attica and Euboea, the East Greek islands and West coast Asia Minor but rarely identified elsewhere (Mazarakis Ainian 1997: 86).

        It is the buildings of apsidal and rectangular plans that Mazarakis Ainian suggests were the antecedents of the Archaic temple and the most preferred designs for ruler's dwellings. They can be divided into two groups; those with a closed facade are classified as 'oikoi' and those with an open facade are known as anta buildings (1997: 259). At many of the settlements there is usually a dwelling that stands out in terms of size, plan and location from all others in the vicinity and it is these that are assumed rulers' dwellings. Figure 2 highlights this in a comparison of elite dwellings of certain type, consisting of a main room with smaller rear chamber, and other domestic buildings of similar shape.

The House as Temple

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        The extent to which these probable elite houses show similarity in form and function to the first urban temples will now have to be considered. To begin to answer this, the reasons for why these houses would be used as foci of ritual activity in the first place need to be looked into. M. Ainian calls these buildings rulers' dwellings, but who were these powerful men and how far would their power have extended within their community?

        Mazarakis Ainian suggests that the rulers who inhabited these dwellings would have been men who came to power on either a hereditary basis or through possessing desirable personal virtues (1997: 270). In anthropological terms this would make them either chiefs or big men. He proposes that in some areas these powerful men may have had their origins as local governors in the Late Helladic IIIB Period, and so would have maintained control of small settlements after the Mycenaean collapse. In most areas settlements would have been small made up of one or two extended families, with the head of the dominant or perhaps oldest household becoming responsible for the management of communal affairs (Mazarakis Ainian 1997: 375, 393). Thomas and Conant express it well:

        The community is virtually an extended family, and the village leader, the head of the most important family.(Thomas and Conant 1999: 52)

This reflects what is thought from Homer; that the Oikos consisting of extended family of maybe three generations was the basic 'kinship, residential and economic unit' with any number of oikoi making up a community (Donlan 1985: 299). It would only seem logical that as part of his control of communal duties the 'chief' would also be in charge of religious cult practice. When the settlement was small and only consisting of the one kinship group the ideal place to worship a deity or ancestor would have been within his home. As the settlement grew perhaps this practice continued as tradition. It is M. Ainian's view that by literally housing religious practice the ruler was maintaining his prestige and control within the community (1997: 393). The control of religion by a single ruler, or dual rulers in this particular case, was continued into later periods by the kings of Sparta who continued to act as chief priests, retaining their religious role (Mazarakis Ainian 1988: 118). This would seem to suggest that religious duties would and could have been controlled by the settlement leader. There would therefore seem to be several strong explanations as to why a ruler's house would have come to be used as a forerunner to the temple.

        The archaeological evidence is mostly in support of this view, with domestic and ritual artefacts often found in association. Nichoria, a site in Messenia is a good example of this. At this site two particular house remains, known as unit IV-1 and unit IV-5, stand out from the rest of the dwellings in the vicinity. As a result it could be said with relative certainty that they held some special importance within the community. Both were quite large apsidal buildings surrounded by small apparently low status apsidal huts. The first, IV-1, has been dated to the 10th century BC while IV-5 most likely replaced it in the 9th. IV-1 is the most complete of the structures and excavation found that it contained a paved circle raised on a podium and covered with a layer of burned material; nearby an amount of animal bone was also recovered. This suggested to the excavators that it may have been a temple, with the paved circle functioning as an altar. Other finds of a domestic nature were also found however, suggesting that it was perhaps of importance both as a dwelling and for its ritual significance (Lukermann and Moody 1978: 94).

        Ritual feasting was another aspect of ancient Greek religious practice that M. Ainian identifies as possibly having a precedent within the rulers' dwelling. Whitley though argues that the large amounts of animal bones and drinking vessels in association with hearths and benches in some dwellings does suggest feasting, but for the purpose of making bonds of allegiance and strengthening authority within the community (Whitley 1991: 185). Mazarakis Ainian does not deny that feasts were most likely taking place for these reasons, but also tenuously suggests that they would have been held for ritual purposes (1997: 379-80). The evidence he cites for this however is limited at best, and he does rely somewhat on justification from the Homeric epics in this particular area, despite his criticism for other scholars on this point. I am however inclined to take up his point of view in this matter. Although it is certain that feasts did occur in rulers' dwellings, the evidence available makes their purpose difficult to determine, but as previously argued, the ruler took on the role of 'priest' which makes it likely that some form of ritual dining must have taken place within his house alongside the other forms mentioned.

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        The architectural similarities between rulers' dwellings and early temples also give credence to M. Ainian's hypothesis. They share similar ground plans, being mostly rectangular or apsidal and having the entrance in the short side, meaning that every cult building of the Late Geometric Period had an architectural counterpart in a domestic building of the same or earlier date (Mazarakis Ainian 1997: 388). Seemingly then this demonstrates very close ties between the building types that must surely represent a continuation of tradition. Snodgrass however does highlight that shrines may have existed as separate entities in earlier periods as direct antecedents of the classical temple, but because architectural standards were lower they cannot be differentiated from domestic structures (Snodgrass 1980: 58). Some buildings, such as building C at Koukounaries, appear to share greater similarity with feasting halls than with residences as they consist of only the one large room without any noticeable divisions (figure 3).

A single open space like this would seem more ideal as a place for feasting than as a living space for the elite. This would suggest a singular role and specific purpose for these particular buildings rather than having the dual purpose of dwelling and centre of cult that is central to M. Ainian's argument. If this was the case then the temple, which fulfilled the role of communal feasting hall and gathering place in the Archaic Period, could be seen as having its origins as a distinctive, separate structure in an urban setting at a much earlier date.

        Lang though believes that EIA society would not have been developed enough socially or economically to allow for the construction of public buildings of singular function (Lang 2007: 186). Ideas of public and private space had not been developed and so the separation of domestic and sacred would not have been necessary; the need for a distinctive temple building within the confines of the settlement would not have existed. Small finds from within many of the large structures suggest a range of domestic functions took place within, rather than the singular evidence of dining that would be expected from a feasting hall. The majority of buildings believed to be rulers' dwellings are divided into compartments or rooms with building C at Koukounaries being one of only several exceptions to this (Mazarakis Ainian 1997: 271). His most convincing argument is that without these being classed as homes of ruling families, there would be little archaeological evidence to suggest Greek society was stratified as opposed to egalitarian during the EIA (1997: 271). It would therefore seem unlikely in light of the evidence that temples would have existed in their own right during in urban contexts during this period. Rulers' dwellings seemingly would have filled the role eventually played by the temple, with the leader, the chief or big man, performing the duties of priest.

Transition to Temple

        It does seem that rulers' dwellings would have been the centre of at least some kind of ritual religious activity within EIA communities. So why was there the transition to the freestanding urban temple at the end of the 8th and beginning of the 7th century? These new temples, in the beginning at least, would have carried out the same religious function as the houses of the elite had done, but were only designed for this singular purpose. This change must surely have represented new ideas emerging of separating public and private space and in turn reflect social, political and even economic change.

        Prior to the mid 8th century, temples as buildings in their own right only appear to have existed at extra-urban sanctuaries; that is those which are outside any particular settlement. One example of such a building is the rural shrine at Pachlitsani Agriada near Kavousi on Crete (Mazarakis Ainian 1988: 116). The building contained a bench on which idols stood and also the remains of several idols, possibly dedications to the goddess Eileithyia (Mazarakis Ainian 1997: 212). It is dated tenuously from the style of the idols to the Protogeometric at the earliest and the turn of the 8th/7th century at the latest, with M. Ainian preferring the earlier date. There was therefore a precedent for buildings that were built for the sole purpose of worship, either to a god, an ancestor or hero, but not within a settlement. As has been mentioned the function of a temple was carried out by the rulers' dwelling and so there was no requirement for such a building until approximately 750BC.From then onwards this view changed and temples began to appear in a number of urban settlements across Greece. Of course the changes taking place did not do so simultaneously across the entire Greek World, but 750BC appears to have been the turning point from which the temple eventually dominated as the primary focus of religious cult. Mazarakis Ainian suggests that the transition to temples occurred as a result of political and social change; specifically the decline of the monarchical system. He proposes that when the so called 'basileus', the leader of the community, had control over the management of communal affairs including religious aspects, the sacred and non sacred were not separated. It is his opinion therefore that the rise of temples from the mid 8th century was a direct result of the abolition of monarchy in favour of an aristocratic system. The former leader would have lost many of his powers and in particular the control of cult activity (Mazarakis Ainian 1988: 118). This implies that control would have passed to the 'state' as it existed at the time, followed by the separation of the every-day into public and private, sacred and non sacred. This is one possible explanation as to the transition of cult from rulers' dwelling to temple and it is closely linked with the other main explanation; the rise of the polis, which shall be discussed shortly.

        According to M. Ainian, the construction of temples meant the removal of cult from private to public control and so also implied the removal of power from the individual i.e. the settlement leader. Although it is widely held that power did gradually become more widely distributed between a number of elite as opposed to being held by one man, and is seen in the archaeological record by the increasingly difficult task of identifying rulers' dwellings from the architectural remains of this period, it could not have been the case everywhere as evidenced by the continued presence of monarchs into the Archaic Period and beyond (Mazarakis Ainian 1997: 382). His reasoning does not take into account that temples themselves, as monumental structures, could also be interpreted as displays of authority and wealth of a high status individual in the same way rulers' dwellings had done, while maybe simultaneously in other areas representing competition between communities and a show of the collective power of the 'state'.

        The best counter-argument to his view must surely be the case of Sparta, as a well documented city where the institution of kingship was maintained, yet also featured temples. He argues that for monumental temples to be constructed it required communal consensus, effort and resources that would not have been possible under a single ruler (1997: 384). Yet, by his own argument, the earliest temples often resembled rulers' dwellings in shape as well as function, and so the very first temples at least could have been constructed using existing resources and manpower (1988: 116). He is however right in suggesting that a ruler at the level of 'chief' would be unlikely to command enough power in order to construct a truly monumental building of any kind. The 'Heroon' at Lefkandi may be the exception to this; at 47 metres long, 10 metres wide and dating to c.950BC it was bigger than anything else built in Greece for more than the next 200 years. It has been suggested that this too may have served as a dwelling before being converted into a funerary structure (De Waele 1998: 384). It would again disprove M. Ainian's theory as it was most likely constructed to house the people eventually buried within it rather than for the broader community, but within the scope of this paper shall be treated as an anomaly.

        This aside then, it would seem to come down to a question not of who was in charge, the individual or the many, but the stage of development as a society that they were at. Sparta was able to have temples even under a diarchy because it had developed into a polis and consequently was at a stage of political development that allowed for the separation of the sacred and the non sacred, the public from the private. It has even been argued that it was a necessary requirement for the development of the city state. Starr asserts that the emergence of purpose built temples indicates civic unity only possible through the social structure and centralised government of the polis (Starr 1986: 39). Thomas and Conant agree to an extent with this view, suggesting that religious commonality would have contributed towards the growing cohesion of settlements and added to the sense of community beyond kinship groups. But they go further in proposing that this manifested itself in the construction of grander structures to honour the gods and therefore played a crucial part in the development of the community and identity of the polis (Thomas and Conant 1999: 138-9). From these two arguments the question is formed as to whether the temple was a result of the rise of the polis, or if the polis was only possible through the creation of, or at least the social, political and economic conditions necessary for the construction of, the urban temple. To properly answer this would require an in depth look into the rise of the polis which is beyond the limits of this paper, but no matter what the answer it is clear that the emergence of both were inexorably linked.

        If, as according to Mazarakis Ainian, it was the shift from monarchy to shared rule that led to the need for temples then it would leave those cities that did not go through this political change as exceptions to the rule. To give him the benefit of the doubt, what he is most likely trying to say is that urban temples were a phenomenon of 'state' regardless of its form of government as long as the power was shared in some way. I would therefore suggest that his use of the term 'monarchy' is misleading in this context as he instead seems to be referring to the change from chiefdom level rule to that of state level; thus indirectly also supporting the idea that the beginnings of the polis was the reason for change.


        So is Mazarakis Ainian's hypothesis valid? The evidence for the period he is studying is relatively limited, encompassing as it does the so called Dark Age of Greece, but what is known from the archaeological record does not appear to disprove his conclusions. That is not to say however that it fully endorses him either. In several examples presented the archaeology could be interpreted in a number of ways but would seem to support his argument through other indirect associations. This can particularly be seen in the evidence for feasting within rulers' dwellings which does exist, but its ritual nature is hard to determine. Its interpretation as such is mostly dependent on whether the settlement ruler truly took on the mantle of priest as argued. Although there are several separate and valid arguments in support of his viewpoint, in my opinion if just one aspect such as the level of authority of a settlement leader was thrown into doubt, the other arguments would become considerably weaker.

        Despite this, having considered the main points of Mazarakis Ainian's argument and the available evidence I have drawn similar conclusions, and would therefore support his hypothesis that rulers' dwellings were indeed a forerunner in both form and function of the early temple.


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