Building Technology

The technology of house construction at the Neolithic settlement of Avgi

The study of building technology through the analysis of domestic architectural remains contributes greatly into the understanding of human activity during the Neolithic period. The neolithic house has been commonly approached as the centre of production, consumption and redistribution, as well as a fundamental unit of spatial organisation with multiple social and symbolic dimensions. What is more, archaeological research during the last decades has shown that domestic structures should also be viewed as ‘artefacts’ or technological products subjected to similar conceptual schemes as other artefact categories (Shaffer 1983; Stevanović 2006; 2007). The application of a technological approach, rather than being restricted to the purely material aspects of buildings (including built forms, ground plans, building materials etc) or the broad limiting factors that influence their final form (such as the environment, the climate and the availability of resources), also focuses on the multifaceted aspects of the construction practices that formulate them. Besides, the house construction process as a whole constitutes an integral part of human activity that is embedded in social relations and is highly influenced by cultural traditions and social imaginaries (Rapoport 1969; Olivier 2003).

Figs. 1 & 2

The main sources of information for the building activity at the Neolithic settlement of Avgi derive a) from the negative impressions of structures, such as post- or stake-holes, foundation pits and trenches, and b) from the considerable number of daub fragments that belong to successive wall plasters or bear multiple impressions of the timber frame. The latter finds (Fig. 1, Fig. 2) can be associated with different parts of the superstructure that were ceramified during the destruction of buildings by fire. Their impressive status of preservation, especially of those belonging to the second half of the 6th millennium (phase AVGI I), offers the possibility of a detailed analysis of the construction techniques and the skills employed. The study of the building remains of the site comprises part of the author’s ongoing PhD research at the University of Cardiff (Kloukinas in progress). As a result, the information provided in the present text is preliminary, based mainly on the macroscopic study of the remains of the so-called Building 5 at the Western Sector of the site, as well as on sporadic evidence from the rest of the structures that were brought to light during the 2002-2008 excavations. Their presentation will, by and large, follow the different stages of the chaîne opératoire, beginning with the exploitation of raw materials and concluding with their final transformation.

Fig. 3

The preliminary study of the material suggests that the building technology of Avgi finds parallels in the architectural tradition of northern Greece and the Balkans (Mould & Wardle 2000; Pyke 1996; McPherron & Srejović 1988; Tringham & Krstić 190; Lichter 2003 – Fig. 3). Concerning the basic characteristics of the excavated dwellings, it should be noted that they are commonly free-standing, quadrilateral post-framed structures. The only exception is presented in the case of an apsidal structure (Building 4) that lies at the Western Sector of the site and is probably dated to the last phase of Late Neolithic II occupation.

The main building materials include timber, mud or clayish earth, water for the mixing of clay, reeds and other plant resources for tempering or for the construction of roofs. On the contrary, the use of stone for the construction of footings or foundation reinforcements (Mylonas 1929; Mould & Wardle 2000) is not documented in any of the settlement’s dwellings. It seems reasonable that the heavy and bulky resources were, more or less, easily accessible by Neolithic inhabitants. The study of the palaeoenvironment supports the existence of water sources in the vicinity of the settlement, as well as the availability of appropriate timber sources in the surrounding woodlands (see Ntinou 2008). Clayish earth is commonly considered as local, quarried from nearby sources. In the case of Avgi and other Neolithic sites of northern Greece, such as Nea Nikomedeia and Makriyalos (Pyke 1996, 49; Pappa & Besios 1999, 182) this assertion is reinforced by the suitability of local deposits, as well as by the excavation of numerous pits in the settlements’ area or their periphery. Some of them could have been initially constructed for the procurement of clay and later could have been used as rubbish pits. Besides, this was a common practice in SE Europe until recently (Butler 1936). Furthermore, the macroscopic study of daub fragments has revealed the incidental nature of various organic or inorganic anthropogenic inclusions, thus implying the exploitation of deposits within the activity zone of the settlement. In any case, the exploitation of more distant sources for the construction of certain parts of the superstructure should not be precluded. The microscopic study of the available materials will challenge this possibility, as well as the exact relationship between fabric type and function.

After the assembling of building materials, foundations were dug for the erection of the major posts (probably made of oak, pine or other coniferous trees) and the roofs. In the case of the earlier building horizon, it is probable that foundations consisted of sizeable posts or rows of posts sunk directly into the soil. However, the scarcity of post-holes that can be stratigraphically associated with the AVGI I dwellings renders problematic the identification of the exact foundation techniques. Concerning the later phase of habitation (AVGI III), the available excavation data are more informative. Foundation techniques include deep, U-shaped foundation trenches that reach 0.50m in width. The posts of the timber frame are sunk inside these trenches in various configurations (single or double rows of densely or more sparsely arranged posts – Στρατούλη 2005; 2010, 11). What is more, the excavation of large post-holes or foundation pits inside Building 2b indicate that internal buttresses or central posts were sometimes added to offer extra support for the roof (Στρατούλη & Μπεκιάρης 2011). The significance of the changes in the foundation techniques cannot be easily interpreted. If the durability of dwellings is put forth as a possible reason of the later development, the use of foundation trenches and pits could reflect the construction of more sizeable buildings during the later phase of habitation.


Figs. 4 & 5

The roofs of Neolithic dwellings are commonly thought to be pitched with wooden rafters covered either with mud-plastered reeds or with un-plastered thatch (Fig. 4). Their reconstruction is, by and large, based on clay house models and ethnographic parallels. Occasionally, such assumptions are reinforced by the impressions of reeds or straw on daub fragments from sites in northern Greece (e.g. Servia) and the adjacent areas. Nonetheless, the study of the Avgi material has not been conclusive so far. It could be hypothesised that a number of thin daub fragments, which bear impressions of planks or thin branches, belongs to the plastering of roofs. However, there is a rich corpus of ethnographic evidence indicating that plastering is not essential for insulation.

Moving to the construction of the wall frame, more reliable information can be drawn. The study of the architectural remains of Building 5 and other structures of the earliest building horizon indicates the application of alternative techniques. One of the most common walling techniques consists of closely set stakes and split timbers (Fig. 5). The diameter of cylindrical stakes, ranging from 0.06 to 0.10 m., suggests the exploitation of thick branches or thin trunks of young trees, while split timbers present similar sizes. The removal of the bark for the protection of timber against decay is evident in some of the daub fragments. In addition, a limited number of impressions indicate that thinner branches or plant fibres were used for the reinforcement of the wall frame or for bonding. However, the way in which these closely set elements were arranged is not always straightforward. In the already mentioned scarcity of post- or stake-holes, it is hard to imagine that the densely arranged stakes were sunk directly into the soil. One possibility could be that they were supported by a footing, either of mud or wood, which would not have left negative impressions on the surface. Furthermore, it is not clear whether this technique is applied in the full length of the wall or whether it represents part of a composite technique.


Figs. 6 & 7

Parallel to the use of closely set timbers, a considerable number of daub fragments confirm the employment of the wattle-and-daub technique that is the weaving of long pliant branches or reeds between uprights (Fig. 6). This technique, although frequently considered as the most common in the region of northern Greece, has not been confirmed in settlements such as Nea Nikomedeia and Servia (Rodden 1965; Pyke 1996, 41; Mould & Wardle 2000, 80). Contrary to that, the finds from Avgi and elsewhere (e.g. Dikili Tash and Makri) supports the co-existence of different construction techniques in the settlement or in the same structure (Martinez 1999). In Building 5, dated to the AVGI I phase, the thickness of daub fragments reflecting the wattle-and-daub technique, as well as the occasional preservation of finishing plaster on their surface, have led to the assumption that they belong to internal partitions or the upper part of the superstructure that was more efficiently protected by rain. However, this assertion cannot be confirmed in the case of other contemporaneous buildings. Besides, it is probable that both closely set timbers and wattle-and-daub were used in combination for the construction of the same wall.

Considering the technological skills and choices of the Neolithic inhabitants, the use of thin planks (approximately 2-2.5 cm thick) and squared beams/stakes documented by a considerable number of impressions on daub fragments is worth mentioning (Fig. 7). Their manufacture, that is well-known from other Neolithic sites in Greece and elsewhere, demonstrates a more complex chaîne opératoire for the production of the appropriate timbers. Even if not all of them necessarily belonged to the same part of the superstructure, they could have been used for the reinforcement of the roof cover or as cladding.

Fig. 8

After being set, the timber frame was packed with mud or clayish earth that was probably applied by throwing and then smoothened by hand. The mixture usually contained vegetable tempers such as chopped straw or chaff (Fig. 8). Other inclusions that are macroscopically visible include pottery sherds, pebbles, shells etc. However, it is highly probable that these were incidental inclusions, associated with deliberate or non deliberate choices in the quarrying and processing of clay. Whatever the case may be, the ceramified daub fragments of the superstructure indicate the application of successive layers of daub and thin finishing plasters, thus supporting the periodical renewal or repairing of the wall surfaces.

Concerning the floors of the AVGI I buildings, two different construction techniques are shown. The first technique includes the plastering of house floors or specific parts of floors with a clayish mixture, while the second one was the technique commonly described as trampled earth. In contrast to other sites in the region of northern Greece and beyond, the construction of timber floors plastered with clay has not been attested. Nevertheless, the use of wooden or vegetable resources (e.g. in the form of planks or mats) for insulation reasons should not be precluded.

In summarising the available evidence, it becomes clear that the material under study has already offered some useful insights into the building technology of Neolithic Avgi, especially during the late 6th millennium. As already noted, the building remains of the site reflect a multifaceted chaîne opératoire. Beside the main building techniques reported so far, a number of finds indicate the application of a wide range of variations (e.g. the use of planks or branches that are set in parallel rows without being weaved) or alternative methods of construction (including the pisé technique). It is obvious that some of these techniques (e.g. wattle-and-daub and pisé) co-exist in the same building. Moreover, traces of both homogeneity and diversity are observable (e.g. foundation techniques, wall construction and floors) not only when comparing structures that belong to different phases but also between structures of the same building horizon.

The identification and interpretation of variability in the different stages and ramifications of the chaîne opératoire is one of the main objectives of future research. In this attempt, the tacking between different scales of analysis (e.g. dwelling, house cluster, settlement, region) and the refinement of the terminology applied seems crucial, lest evidence of intra- or inter-site differentiation is overlooked. As it is the case with other categories of the material culture, house construction does not necessarily follow strict rules or widely accepted prescriptions. Rather than being essentially static and conservative, it should be approached as a dynamic part of human action that is potentially subjected to constant renegotiation. The detailed analysis of well preserved remains, such as those of Avgi and other sites, may shed light on relevant issues.


List of figures

Fig. 1. Rubble of Building 5 (Avgi I) at the western sector of the site (Archive of the excavations at the Neolithic settlement of Avgi, Kastoria, photo: G. Vlachos).

Fig. 2. Rubble of buildings 1 and 7 (Avgi I) at the eastern sector of the site (Archive of the Excavations at the Neolithic settlement of Avgi, photo: G. Vlachos).

Fig. 3. Graphical and experimental reconstructions of Neolithic houses in northern Greece and the Balkans: a) Nea Nikomedeia (Rodden 1965, p. 87), b) Dispilio open-air museum (Αλματζή 2002, p. 28), c) Sopot, Croatia (Balen 2010, fig. 6.3, p.58), d) Vadastra, Romania (Gheorgiu 2004, fig. 1).

Fig. 4. The construction of the roof: a) experimental reconstruction of a prehistoric house at the Vadastra region in Romania (Gheorgiu 2010, fig. 11.7, p. 98, b, c) traditional hut at the Sarakini settlement in Rhodope (Ευστρατίου 2002, fig. 99, p. 388, fig. 108, p. 392).

Fig. 5. Daub fragments with impressions of closely set stakes (photo: D. Kloukinas).

Fig. 6. Daub fragments with impressions of split timber or ‘planks’ (photo D. Kloukinas).

Fig. 7. Daub fragments with impressions of intertwined wattles (photo: D. Kloukinas).

Fig. 8. The preparation of the construction earth and the plastering of the timber frame: a, b) traditional hut at the Sarakini settlement in Rhodope (Ευστρατίου 2002, fig. 110 & 111, p. 393, c) experimental reconstruction of a Neolithic house wall at the Neolithic settlement of Dikili Tash, Drama (Martinez 1999, fig. 9, p. 48).



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 June 2012

Dimitrios Kloukinas

PhD candidate
Cardiff University
Department of Archaeology and Conservation