One of the aspects of public space that interests me is the way that public buildings are believed to create cohesion and community through shared space. These buildings seem to create cohesion even when large events aren’t being held there. The bonds that exist within the community seem to be inextricably tied to the actual structure rather than the activities taking place there.
I wonder whether these bonds are created through the act of constructing the building. The physical act of working in a group to erect a structure forms bonds between members that last long past the construction event has been completed.
One historical place where this can be seen is in barn-raisings. The community would pull together to erect one family’s barn, with the understanding that the same group would help any other member when required with a wide variety of different work tasks. Early in the settlement of Canada, families did not have the work force available to complete tasks such as land clearance, or even harvesting, and did not have the cash to be able to hire labourers. This means that the only way to be able to clear the land to support a young family was to rely on neighbours. In turn, neighbours would rely on you. The communities establishing themselves in these remote areas relied completely on one another, and working together cemented these relationships. Refusing to contribute to a barn raising, or any other work bee, would have resulted in being ostracized from the community, and likely would have resulted in a family’s inability to handle crises or problems with work load.
These working relationships have been considered as egalitarian in a nostalgic way by modern people, but the reality is that people were well aware of who benefited from any particular group project. People never forgot who’s barn was being erected or who’s land was being cleared, even if they expected to be repaid in kind eventually. If the host of a barn raising was of a higher station that most of his neighbours, he would be expected to provide a more elaborate supper and entertainment after the work, and he might try to maintain a certain social distance between himself and the ‘rabble’. This wasn’t always possible, but class distinctions were not suspended despite interdependence (Wilson 2001). If anything, these work bees reinforced class distinctions and differentiation rather than eliminating them.
What is most interesting to me is that “immediate neighbours of long-standing acquaintance made up the core of the working group, with relatives being important, though less so” (Wilson 2001: 17). This means that location and proximity was more important a factor determining who came and helped, not pre-existing relationships. This supports the suggestion that construction and work projects would create and maintain relationships in communities.
Work bees and barn raisings functioned as a kind of redistributive economy, spreading labour and skills between individual families, as well as mitigating risk. Does this mean that different situations would exist for communally owned projects instead of private property?
Djenné, Mali is reknowned for housing the largest mud brick structure in the world, the Great Mosque of Djenné, now a World Heritage site. This mosque is enormous, and while it is maintained by a group of specialist masons, every year, the entire community pitches in to replaster the entire structure to protect it during the rainy season. This becomes a festival, with music and food and ritual and fun and at the end of the day, the community has ensured the survival of their community centre for another year.
Recently, the mosque has been ‘restored’, stripped of the buildup of decades of replasterings, back to its ‘original’ state. No one in living memory has seen the mosque like this, and critics have pointed to the organic nature of the building, that it is a living building. Modern western conservationists have even talked about including a weatherproof coating so the community wouldn’t have to replasterings every year.
But maybe the significance of the structure is about more than the space delineated by the walls and the prayers held within? Couldn’t the physical act of building and maintaining the venerable mosque be as important to community? Would removing the need for the entire community to pitch in slowly dissolve the bonds of community?
Farmers in Ontario complained that work bees were difficult to manage, but they did cement the bonds of neighbourliness. The situations that made them necessary (rigorous land clearance with small families, illness, work too big for one family) required families to reach out and then give back to their community. As these requirements receded (mechanization, established farming, development of cash economy) farmers found it easier to hire labourers as required rather than deal with organizing and administering a work bee. Most people would now say that modern farming communities lack some of the tightly knit community bonds that existed earlier. Are these two facts related?
If the community is no longer required to contribute to the maintenance and upkeep of the Great Mosque at Djenne, how will they cope? What else will slowly fade away?
What does this mean for the earliest public buildings? In the Near East, a series of enigmatic public structures emerged in the Neolithic, and they have been interpreted as public structures and lots of people have explored what these buildings would have meant for the relationships developing in these new communities. People in Neolithic villages were living in new types of communities, staying together for longer periods of time which would likely have resulted in increased friction and interpersonal stress. The new public buildings raises questions about who was using them and how they were using them, and what effect their use would have had on the community.
However, perhaps the right question is who was building them?
Would this have been like barn raisings, with one family or small group of organizers guiding and planning their construction with the rest of the community pitching in? Or was it a big community festival with community ownership and community planning? Or finally, was it planned and executed by a single segment of the community to demonstrate something to the rest of the village?
One structure in particular can stands out as potentially having been constructed by a large group. At the site of Neolithic Jericho, a large tower has been found constructed just inside a massive wall. The Tower is preserved to 7.75m high, and a narrow passage with 22 steps gave access to the top of the tower. Nothing like this has been found at any contemporary site, and many different theories have been proposed to explain it. These include defense, symbolic, protection against flooding, and recently as a ‘shadow defence’. None of these explanations are wholly satisfying, but perhaps we should be exploring how the construction of this tower would have been completed and how it would have affected the village.
In my dissertation research, I calculated how long it would have taken to construct the various public structures, including the Jericho tower, in ‘man-hours’. Many researchers have emphasized how a large group of people would have needed to work together to construct them. They then move on to the requirement of organization and some sort of leader to direct the project. Focussing the discussion on the leadership of the group building project overlooks the actually labour force: how many people worked together and who were they? In my research I have calculated the number of days needed to build the tower (4 878 days), but that would have changed if 1, 10, or 50 people worked together for different lengths of time. How can we tell who was actually doing the building?
In Egypt, we are lucky. Historical texts and writing identify workers villages during the construction of royal tombs. And there is even some way of discussing how these workers were compensated, answering the question of why these people decided to do this work.
But in prehistory? We are lost. Why would people living in early farming villages such as Jericho spend weeks or months building a tower? Were they ‘paid’? In food and feasting? Did they expect their effort to be repaid in kind later? Maybe the community decided together that it was worth their time to build a tower.
The fact of the matter is that we may never know what drove these people to dedicate so much effort to these large construction projects, but I feel confident in saying that building the structures would have built the community.
Families and people would have known who else had contributed. They would have known who had been excluded or who had chosen not to take part. Even years or generations later, people would have talked about how their family had taken part, and have had a special relationship with others who had been there.
Just think of how people today discover someone they’ve just met was also at a particular concert years ago, they immediately feel closer to them even though they had no relationship before. This would have been true then.
“Oh! Your dad helped build the tower at Jericho? My uncle was the guy who helped lay the stairs!”
People who build together, build community together!
Kenyon, K. (1981). Excavations at Jericho: The Architecture and Stratigraphy of the Tell. London, British School of Archaeology.
Bar-Yosef, O. (1986). “The Walls of Jericho: An Alternative Interpretation.” Current Anthropology 27(2): 157-162.
Naveh, D. (2003). “PPNA Jericho: A Socio-Political Perspective.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 13(1): 83-96.
Barkay, R. and R. Liran (2008). “Midsummer Sunset at Neolithic Jericho.” Time and Mind 1(3): 273-284.