Virtual Symposia

Clay, Water, and Fire: An Experimental and Experiential Approach to the Rituals and Materiality of Prehistoric Settlements

Dragos Gheorghiu


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At the end of the Pre Pottery Neolithic in the Near East, and during all the Neolithic and Chalcolithic in South Eastern Europe, an original social and semiotic phenomenon emerges together with the first forms of sedentism: the emergence of overlapped settlements or tells. Such phenomenon which includes a temporal trait cannot be understood without a longue durée approach, which will reveal the ritual / cyclical phases of construction and deconstruction of the material process of dwelling, as well as the discontinuities existing in some places.

A tell settlement is, from a semiotic perspective, a sort of attractor positioned in a landscape, which will catch the materiality of the environment, transforming it with the help of tools and geometry into a domesticated object. One should perceive the material transformations of construction and deconstruction, as ritual combinations of various materials, followed by their alchemic transformation through a process of combustion, which are also part of the domestication process. In all these processes the chaîne-opératoire of making and dismantling had a ritual character, since both were operations with very well determined stages. The two antagonist processes are characterized by a rhetoric structure, using synecdoche, metonymies and metaphors.

The transformation of the rough material into a composite substance by combining water with clay and straws, followed by its alchemic transformation into a material with a new quality which is ceramics, are all stages of a ritual technological process. A house built from the composite material mentioned, as well as a settlement, has a limited life span, which ends with a rite of passage, i.e. a symbolic sacrifice through fire, followed by a volumetric transformation, because a tridimensional clay object became a two dimensional layer of ceramics. This new material was recycled later in the process of re-dwelling the place.

To approach the technical and the ritual processes mentioned I used experimental archaeology: I built replicas of prehistoric wattle-and-daub houses surrounded by palisades and ditches, granaries and kilns, and after a period of use I deconstructed them with fire, to understand the process of combustion, the dynamic of the collapse, and the material transformation, as well as recycling. But to approach prehistoric materiality, the archaeological method is not complete without the phenomenological experience of the performer, which is an alternate instrument to understand through embodiment the rituality of the diverse materialities of the past.

Dragos Gheorghiu is a professor at the Doctoral School, National University of Arts, Bucharest, RO.

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