In a TLS review of several books on ancient perception, material, and architecture Peter Thonemann notes the dominance of circular architecture in “prehistoric” Europe, and asks whether this form carried some kind of symbolic weight. He cites an Athenian example: “The best-known round building in the ancient Greek world is probably the Athenian tholos , a large circular structure in the south-west corner of the agora, the central public space of ancient Athens. This building served as a public dining and assembly hall for the prytaneis , the presiding officers of the Athenian democratic council, who seem to have dined sitting on benches around the edge of the circle. The tholos was built in the early fifth century BC over the ruins of a lavish rectilinear private house, which has attractively (if speculatively) been identified as the residence of the sixth-century Pisistratid tyrant dynasty, demolished and replaced by the new Athenian democratic regime in the last decade of the sixth century. Few archaeologists of Athens can resist the temptation to interpret the architectural form of the tholos , Okhitovich-style, as a straightforward reflection of the new egalitarian values of the radical Athenian democracy.”

Not everyone is convinced. He cites Andrew Meirion Jones’s suggestion from Prehistoric Materialities: Becoming Material in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland that architectural form is plastic, and only means what it means because of performances that take place within it:

“Jones is unconvinced by the notion that artefacts, whether buildings, pots or stone circles, can simply be reduced to vehicles for symbolic communication or ‘ciphers for social formations.’ Instead, he insists that sites and artefacts take on meanings only through our own repeated interactions with them.”

Thonemann offers his own home as an example: “What does my kitchen ‘symbolize’? In itself, as a bit of architecture, nothing much; it’s just a long thin room with a fridge and cooker at one end. But if you watched us doing things in it for a couple of hours – me sitting over here, Sarah sitting over there, Alex using the room indiscriminately as an assault course – you would probably learn quite a lot about the underlying social dynamics of the Thonemann household . . . . That is to say, it is only bit by bit, through repeated, habitual actions, that buildings and objects get invested with meaning and significance.”

And this means that we know much less about the significance of ancient architecture than we would like: “It is wishful thinking to suppose that we can read off the character of the Late Neolithic social order in Orkney from the ground plan of a roundhouse: we have to know what people did in the house, where objects were kept, even – as Jones argues – how light and shadow changed the appearance of the interior at different times of the day and year.”


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