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Patrick Skinner

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Is Spatial Syntax a Profitable Methodology for Studying Past Structures?


For structuralists, culture is like a language. Indeed, as within language, where it is possible to generate an infinite number of different statements or sentences from a finite set of grammatical rules, so to, within material culture, it is possible to generate an infinite number of messages based on a finite set of underlying rules (Johnson 1999, 91). Thus, according to structuralists, by being able to comprehend the underlying rules, it becomes possible, through material cultural evidence, to understand social structure. It is within such a framework that the methodology of spatial syntax operates. Spatial syntax was first introduced into the field of archaeological studies by Hillier et al. (1978), its methodology was used to question how and why different societies produce different spatial order through building forms and settlement patterns. Spatial syntax operates on the premise that architecture is culturally meaningful: space is both produced by and in turn produces and reproduces social relations (Foster 1989, 40). Whilst no two cases are alike, it assumes that variations in built space operate upon underlying common principles (Hillier and Hanson 1984, 54). Whilst there may be an infinite number of complexes of spatial relations (phenotypes) possible, there are only a finite number of underlying principles (genotypes) that restrict such complexes. By quantifying the relationship among architectural spaces (Van Dyke 1999, 461), spatial syntax purports to be able to investigate social processes. Thus, social structure, apparently represented in spatial organisation, can be compared and statements made about the nature of interaction within communities (Foster 1989, 40). Within spatial syntax there are a number of different methodologies (Hillier and Hanson 1984), all of which look to quantify built space in
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order to comprehend social structure. This essay, however, shall utilise spatial syntax case studies that deal with buildings and their spaces as independent entities, rather than in the context of settlements. It shall concern itself with case studies that have used access analysis to study built spaces; a methodology within the spatial syntax toolkit that investigates the relationships between the internal and external relationships of cells or rooms (ibid., 143). Access analysis considers the patterns of relations between inhabitants and between inhabitants and strangers as these are reflected in the use of interior space, in terms of the patterns created by physical boundaries and entrances (Foster 1989, 40). More specifically, it looks to identify the distributedness/nondistributedness and symmetry/asymmetry of built spaces. The former is the distinction between spatial relations with more than one and those with only one locus of control with respect to some other space, i.e. accessibility (Hillier and Hanson 1984, 14). Symmetry/asymmetry represents the distinction between spaces that have direct access to other spaces without having to pass through one or more intermediary spaces, and spaces whose relations are only indirect, i.e. the extent to which access is subject to hierarchical control (ibid.). Referring to access analysis case studies, this essay will attempt to assess whether spatial syntax offers a profitable methodology for studying past social structures. It will not look to describe the technicalities of spatial syntax (see Hillier et al. 1978; Hillier and Hanson 1984) but whilst attempting to reveal the complexities of societies, will try to expose the underlying factors that might have influenced past social structures. Whilst attempting to expose influential factors of social structure this essay shall attempt to determine the profitability of spatial syntax; it will consider profit as a move towards a more comprehensive understanding of past societies, and so determine whether the direct analogy that spatial
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syntax makes between spatial form and social form provides archaeologists with a profitable mode of study. More specifically, this essay will explore the complexities of societies; discuss the effect of time on social comprehension; investigate the relationship between sedentary and nomadic societies, and social comprehension of built space; and finally, whilst looking at art and its role in influencing social structure, shall question the apparent monopoly that physical boundaries have on being. Access analysis has been used extensively (Dawson 2002; Fairclough 1992; Foster 1989; Van Dyke 1999) within the field of archaeology to quantitatively define built space, whilst attempting to comprehend underlying social structure. For example, Foster (Foster1989, 42), referring to Scottish Atlantic Iron Age brochs, comments that, probably Lingro and definitely Gurness and Howe can be interpreted as planned nucleated villages in the centre of which lived the pre-eminent family, surrounded by those who paid tribute and in return received protection or patronage. Similarly, Van Dyke (1999, 466), commenting on the results of an access analysis study of Guadalupe Ruin, a Chacoan great house characteristic of the Chaco phenomena of the American Southwest, postulates that Guadalupe Ruin did not function as an elite residence, exclusive ritual facility or other type of restricted building during any of the occupation phases; however, its nondistributedness suggests that it did function in some kind of exclusionary capacity. In conclusion, Van Dyke (ibid., 461) states that Guadalupe Ruin seems to have been a domestic rather than administrative or ceremonial building. Whether societies can, however, be comprehended in such simplistic terms must be questioned. McGuire and Saitta (1996, 197), in their examination of a late Prehispanic 14th century western Pueblo social organisation, suggest that to simply attempt to comprehend societies as egalitarian or stratified, acepholous or
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authoritarian, for example, is unproductive. Indeed, McGuire and Saitta propose (ibid.) that most modern and past Pueblo societies embodied both consensual and hierarchical social relations. For instance, among the Hopi (Whitley 1988, cited by McGuire and Saitta 1996, 202-203), social relations and ideology encouraged egalitarianism, co-operation and peaceful relations during good times; during harder times of reduced rainfall or early frost, however, the economically powerful and ceremonially more important were economically able to remain in the village, whilst the economically poor were forced to hunt and gather or rely on charity. Also, Bolton (1908, cited by McGuire and Saitta 1966, 203) has highlighted that apparent political hierarchy is not concrete, indeed he postulates that pueblos are free within government: although they have petty captains they obey them badly. Bowser (2000, 224) has shown that in Conambo (Ecuadorian Amazon) political organisation is egalitarian and institutionalised positions of authority are absent: political leadership is informal, although certain adults are acknowledged to have more influence over decisions than others. Poyer (1993, 111) reveals similar social complexities in her research of the people of Sapwuahfik Atoll (Federation States of Micronesia). Whilst the people of Sapwuahfik Atoll assert an ethos of egalitarianism, they also value a traditional rank hierarchy adopted from neighbouring Pohnpei Island. The Sapwuahfik embody the traditional Pohnpei elected system of leadership. Sapwuahfik high titleholders, however, exert little power on the atoll by virtue of their titles: possession of a title does not allow preferential access to wealth or resources, instead, titleholders embody the morality of social life (ibid.). Whilst access analysis attempts to quantify built space in order to characterise and comprehend past societies and social structure, evidently, societies and their social form may not be so easily approximated. Whilst a faade of hierarchy may exist, in reality an ethos of egalitarianism may dictate or structure social behaviour.
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Conversely, the structure of an egalitarian mindset may be permeable, conditionally reliant on environmental and evolutionary pressures. Indeed, societies, through social relations embody a degree of agency that allows apparent social structure to be permeated, thereby creating new social structure or form. It follows, that in order to move towards a more comprehensive understanding of past societies, social structure must be considered not as a static entity forever in stasis, but as a collection of complex dynamic active and reactionary forces of relations, forever changing and in a state of flux. Access analysis has also been applied to chronologically defined periods of buildings and spaces (Fairclough 1992; Van Dyke 1999). It is through such a methodology that temporal comparisons between built spaces have been undertaken and statements made about social structure through time. Fairclough (1992, 358-359) for instance, has applied access analysis to three phases of Eldigham Castle between A.D.1300-1575. He states that direct access to the castle, other than through the main gate, in later periods reflects an increased emphasis on domestic function rather than military symbolism and that change in the buildings structure through time may also reflect the declining status of servants (ibid., 364). Similarly, Van Dyke (1999, 469), whilst examining three distinct temporal construction phases, suggests that Guadalupe Ruin does not demonstrate a context of social inequality for any of the phases, and no apparent argument can be proposed to suggest that people who lived there were of significant importance. Such an approach, however, fails to comprehend the relationship between buildings and their spaces, social form and temporal variance. Hodder (1994, 74), for example, comments that particularly in the early stages of the introduction of new built spaces, the referential or metaphoric component of meaning may be high; through time, however, an object comes to mean in its
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own right. Indeed, a societys perception of built space is initially made up of many individual mutually detached perceptions based on individual prior knowledge. Through time, as experience of the buildings use becomes common knowledge, individual perceptions become both mutually more blended and tapered as a more common ideology of the built space becomes apparent. Thus, whilst there may be no actual physical change within the built space, a societys perception of that built space may indeed change. Conversely, perception may remain static in the face of physical change. For example, whilst a couple may have married in their local chapel, the later conversion of that chapel into a village hall, ultimately, may not change their perception of the building and its space and consequently the way they behave towards that space. More archaeologically, the physical closure of Neolithic tombs may have changed their function within society; however, for the descendents of ancestors that were buried within the tombs, the meaning of that space and their perception of it may be governed, not by physical changes in the built space, but by referential and metaphoric meanings connected to their ancestors (ibid.). Thus the application of access analysis to chronologically defined built spaces fails to appreciate the independent nature of human perception. Whilst built space and the temporal variation of that space may influence human movement and to a certain degree social structure, evidently the temporal physical variation of built space does not necessarily govern a societys perception of that space. Indeed, a societys perception of a built space, although influenced by its physical characteristics and its temporal variance, may be considered as largely autonomous. Built spaces and their variation in time must be considered only as a guiding force that attempts to manipulate ideological concepts and social structure. Whilst social structure may be influenced, to a certain extent, by the perception of built space and the metaphoric or referential
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meanings that are enveloped within that built space, the level of metaphoric or referential meanings will vary depending upon the character of a society. For example, the application of access analysis has not been confined to sedentary societies; indeed, Dawson (2002, 464) has utilised access analysis in order to examine the spatial morphology of snow houses built by three nomadic Central Inuit groups in the Canadian Arctic. By using sketches made of the distinct cultures, i.e. Copper Inuit, Netsilik Inuit and the Igulik Inuit, by explorers, missionaries and ethnographers (ibid., 465-466), he suggests that Inuit social structure is reflected in the spatial configuration of snow houses. Dawson (ibid., 478) concludes that an increasing emphasis on extended families, kinship as an organising principle and behavioural directives stressing respect and obedience, translate into differences in scale, integration and spatial asymmetry. This, according to Dawson (ibid., 464), has important implications for understanding how architecture might be used to identify patterns of household and community organisation in the archaeological record. Surely, however, the very nature of nomadic societies and their relationship with built space generates a very different perception of that space. Prussin (1993, 93) for instance, has shown that within nomadic communities, the process of building homes or shelters may; reinforce technological continuity; be a gender-discrete architectural value system (ibid., 94); reinforce spatial continuity through the re-use of multifunctional components; or be synonymous with marriage (ibid., 95). He has also shown that as societies move from a more nomadic to sedentary lifestyle, physical manifestations of social relations change (ibid., 98). The situation which contributed to and reinforced individual and social meaning within the built environment and the symbolic values inherent in the architecture, shift to other domains. Relationships between building technology and transport technology may erode, control over the domicile may be lost, and consequently house furnishings may
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become the recipient of exercised control, demonstrative of symbolic values that were originally embedded within house architecture. It is surely the case then, that whilst it is likely that the Inuit would have experienced a more sedentary lifestyle during the summer months (Schledermann 1976, 45), seasonal movement from a nomadic to more sedentary lifestyle would have significantly altered their perception of built space and so the social structure regarding that space. Access analysis, whilst not allowing for metaphoric or referential meaning within built space, fails to comprehend the context in which built space is understood. Whilst metaphoric meaning may shift from the built space to metaphorically more malleable objects as societies become more sedentary, it follows that human behaviour or structure becomes less reliant on comprehending the language of buildings and their spaces and more reliant on understanding the language embodied within objects in that space. Therefore, built space may be seen to become less of an indicator of social form as societies become more sedentary. It becomes necessary then, in order to be able to move towards a more comprehensive understanding of past societies, that archaeologists must allow for and indeed incorporate the fact that spatial form of built space may take on very different degrees of meanings, and thus represent and create social form to varying degrees, depending on whether a society is more nomadic or sedentary. Access analysis is interested in the built space; it is not concerned with art and its effect on social structure. Understanding the role of art, however, in creating and representing societies, is essential whilst attempting to comprehend the underlying social structure of past societies with regards to built space. For example, Dawson, quoting Rasmussen (1933, 22, cited by Dawson 2002, 471), in his access analysis of Inuit houses, comments, icicles [that] gleamed in the soft light of the blubber lamps had formed from the heat that
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had thawed the inner surface of the walls. Dawson (ibid.) takes a normative approach in comprehending such a phenomena: he states that this points to living arrangements that were more stable and of longer duration. It is not difficult, however, to appreciate, that the icicles may have encapsulated a more metaphoric connotation for the Inuit. The slow development of the icicles would have created an interior that was in a state of flux, forever changing and dynamic, they would have created an atmosphere, unachievable through any artificial manner, attainable only through a unique combination of time, heat and chemical properties. The Inuits decision not to remove icicles did not demonstrate neglect for their environment, but represented a conscious decision to decorate their living space, whilst allowing individualistic metaphors of social reality to be encapsulated within their form. Less abstract examples of how art can influence perception and social form are also evident. Cole (1982, 94) for instance, has shown that, whilst Mbara artists use colour in different ways, depending on the section of the mbara being decorated and according to the desired effect, they use painting to animate, enliven and to create a cheerful place, vibrant and inviting (ibid., 147). Similarly, Aniaker (1996, 234) postulates that wall paintings, executed by female members, have a unifying stylistic effect on the multiple domains of the family compound. Art may be considered as metaphorically representative of a societys comprehension of its social relations. Whilst representative of social relations, it also attempts to manipulate society by attempting to create specific feelings within the individual. Ironically, it is those feelings that allow the individual to escape the structure of both social form and the reality of built space. Indeed, as Knights (1994, 123) comments, physical structure has no monopoly on being: it is merely one mode of becoming. Furthermore, physical structure, whilst creating a canvas for art, actively assists emotional departure from its reality, thereby
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encouraging the individual to ideologically permeate apparent social structure. This essay has demonstrated that in order to be able to move towards a more comprehensive understanding of past societies, social structure must be considered as dynamic, active and reactionary: it is not a static entity that enjoys eternal stasis, nor should it be thought of as a body that can be identified and artificially labelled for the convenience of the archaeologist. Indeed, the very nature of social structure is not concrete, but should be thought of as an entity that allows itself to be constantly redefined in response to socio-economic and political circumstance. A clearer picture of past societies may only be accomplished by comprehending social structure as not reliant upon and dictated by the temporal physical characteristics of built space. The temporal physical variation of built space must instead be considered only as a guiding force that attempts to manipulate ideological concepts and social structure. Indeed, metaphoric and referential meanings that helped shape social structure may resist the social form imposed upon society by physical variation in built space or by a change in the actual function of built space. Whilst metaphoric and referential meaning in built space may resist imposed social structural change, the metaphoric or referential value of built space must be considered as variable; dependent on the character of the society and the ability of built space to reflect and create, dynamically, the essence of social structure. Further, social form or structure, is not emotionally isolated. Indeed, the very fact that built space can be decorated, actively enables perception and thus social structure to transcend both the physical boundaries of built space and the apparent social boundaries that built space might suggests. This essay set out to determine whether spatial syntax was a profitable methodology for studying past social structures. It has
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attempted to explore the complexities of societies and their social structures in order to assess whether the direct analogy that spatial syntax places on spatial and social form, is indeed profitable. Thus by considering profit as a move towards a more comprehensive understanding of past societies, exposing the complexities of social structures and identifying the basis for syntactic analysis, this essay proposes to be able to postulate the profitability of spatial syntax. In answer to the question then, spatial syntax and its methodology demonstrates an inability to allow for the very humanness of societies and their social structures, their complexities, their independence, and their ability to transcend the socially constructed confines of physical space; spatial syntax and its methodology actively restricts archaeologists ability to inquire and comprehend social structure. Used in isolation then, spatial syntax may not be considered as profitable. However, spatial syntax used as a tool that does not attempt to dictate solutions regarding social structure, but allows its inferences to be offset by other less restrictive, less scientific and less new archaeological methods of analysis, may allow archaeologists to move towards a more comprehensive understanding of past societies, and so may be termed profitable. Spatial syntax, if used in such an open-minded manner, may provide the archaeologist with valuable insight into the relationship between spatial form and social structure. Ultimately, however, the decision of whether any methodological analysis is profitable or not lies in the hands of the archaeologist using it.

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Bibliography
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Richards (eds.), Architecture and Order: Approaches to Social Space, 73-86. Routledge: London. Johnson, M. 1999. Archaeological Theory: An Introduction. Blackwell: Oxford. Knights, C. 1993. The Spatiality of the Roman Domestic Setting: An Interpretation of Symbolic Content. In M. Parker-Pearson and C. Richards (eds.), Architecture and Order: Approaches to Social Space, 113-146. Routledge: London. McGuire, R. and Saitta, D. 1996. Although they have Petty Captains, they Obey them Badly: The Dialectics of Prehispanic Western Pueblo Social Organization. American Antiquity 61: 197-216. Poyer, L. 1993. Egalitarianism in the Face of Hierarchy. Journal of Anthropological Research 49: 111-133. Prussin, L. 1996. When Nomads Settle: Changing Technologies of Building and Transport and the Production of Architectural Form among the Gabra, the Rendille, and the Somalis. In M. Arnoldi, C. Geary and K. Hardin (eds.), African Material Culture, 73-102. Indiana University Press: Bloomington. Schledermann, P. 1976. The Effect of Climate/Ecological Changes on the Style of Thule Culture Winter Dwellings. Arctic and Alpine Research 8: 37-47. Trigger, B. 1989. A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. Van Dyke, R. 1999. Space Syntax Analysis at the Chacoan Outlier of Guadalupe. American Antiquity 64: 461-473.

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