Reading Village Plans

Architecture and Social Change in Northeastern Iran

By: Lee Horne

Originally Published in 1991

View PDF

Architecture plays multiple roles in people’s lives. Dwel­lings reflect not only how people live, but also how they think about life and how they choose, con­sciously or not, to represent them­selves to others. Thus the domestic architecture of ancient sites offers much more that a spatial and chrono­logical context for other kinds of artifacts.

Some excellent ethnoarchaeologi­cal studies have explored these mul­tiple relationships between architec­ture and society; good examples are those of Kramer (1982) and Watson (1979) in Iran, and David (1971) in West Africa. My own ethnoarchaeologi-cal research on village archi­tecture was carried out in the late 1970s in the Tauran region of north­eastern Iran (Fig. 2). It also aimed to explain architectural spaces in terms of social and economic organization. Wilk, working among the Kekchi Maya of southern Belize, has shown how changes in architectural form can be used to track changes in economic organization and relations with the larger world (1983). In Tauran, a similar shift has taken place so rapidly and so recently that it can almost be caught in the act. Because floor plans may be all that remain of the architecture within an ancient site, I concentrate here on reading village plans for the social and economic information they contain.

The Case Study

Tauran comprises a group of 13 small, nucleated villages scattered on a semiarid plain about 120 sq km in extent. The plain is bounded on the northeast by a sand sea, on the south by a mountain range, and else­where by foothills that separate it from other plains and from the immense salt basin of central Iran. The 1300 residents of Tauran are Persian speakers. Unlike villagers in some other parts of Iran, they are not tribally organized, although they do maintain relationships with kin from other parts of the country. On the basis of historical and archae­ological evidence, the Tauran Plain has been settled, most likely inter­mittently, for at least two millennia. Abundant material evidence still stands in the form of abandoned mudbrick architecture preserved by the arid climate.

Ecologically, the Tauran Plain is well suited for grazing. It lies in a zone intermediate between winter and summer pasture and has tradi­tionally been used in seasonal alter­nation by groups of pastoralism entering from the northern highlands in the winter and from the southern and eastern lowlands in the summer. Agriculturally based settlement in Tauran is possible only by means of investment in ground water irriga­tion systems in the form of man­made subterranean galleries known as qanats (Fig. 13). Dry-farming is risky, with crops frequently failing from lack of rain.

Nearly all Tauranis live directly or indirectly off the land as property-owning farmers and herders, or as wage-labor shepherds. Over the cen­turies, residents have been alter­nately drawn into and cut off from the world outside, depending on conditions over which they have little control. Today (by which I mean the “ethnographic present” of the late 1970s), they are relatively isolated and without services. There is neither piped water nor electricity on the plain. The nearest city is 120 km away (a seven-hour drive). In 1976 an extremely slow and unreli­able bus, one local pickup truck, and a few motorcycles were the only motor transport available.

Baghestan village is located in the center of the plain (Fig. 1). It re­sembles the other villages in general appearance and in location relative to fields and water system. Baghestan has a population of about 150, living in 33 households of nuclear type (parents and unmarried chil­dren), occasionally extended by wi­dowed or other unmarried adult relatives. Other villages on the plain range from 27 to 178 households.

The complete village site covers about 2.5 ha of land, divided into three discrete parts that were once separate settlements. Each area still has its own qanat and field system. Today, however, only the central section is occupied; the structures of the other two are used for storage and animal shelter.

The village is loosely organized as a community. The leadership posi­tions that do exist (a kadkhoda, or head man, and a village council) have been imposed by the central government for its own administra­tive purposes. The village as a whole maintains a communal bathhouse and a single-room religious structure called a hoseinlya (Fig. 3). Villagers also share a common cemetery and a government schoolhouse. In Tauran, the main rights obtained through residence are access to the small area of common pasture that surrounds each village. Rights and responsibili­ties with respect to field systems are acquired through private ownership of land and water, which does not require residence in the village.

The entire village gathers on special occasions of religious obli­gation, such as that of Ramadan or those commemorating the death of Hosein, the foremost martyr of the Shi’a sect of Islam. These services are held in the hoseinlya or at the village cemetery, depending on the particular event. Sponsored by one or another of the villagers, they usually involve the distribution of food or at least tea. The whole village also takes part in traditional Persian New Year celebrations and in feasts for deceased relatives.

While the village is not a corporate unit in an economic sense, it is coherent in other ways. Villagers may act individually and as house­hold units, but a network of cooperation is also apparent. They are more-over all related to one another through kinship or marriage. Marriage tends to be village endogamous: in 63 percent of village couples, both members were from Baghestan; in only one case was neither member of the couple from the village. Residents speak well of the village in terms of its location, water quality, and soil quality, and prefer it over neighboring villages.

The villagers present a public face of unity and equality. In spite of this expressed stance, however, wealth and access to productive resources are not evenly distributed among village residents. The poorest house­hold has neither irrigated land nor animals. The richest owns flocks in the hundreds and several dozen hours of water per irrigation cycle. These two kinds of holdings—ani­mals and water—are good measures of traditional wealth in the Near East, and I will use them below in order to test correlations between wealth and domestic space in Bag-bestan. (It should be noted that in this case, rich is only a relative term; in absolute terms, no one is so rich that they can afford not to work on their land, tend their flocks, or process the resulting products. Farm­ing and herding are precarious ways of making a living here, and holdings in productive resources tend to fluc­tuate, often dramatically.)

Architectural Reflections of Village Society

In a general way, Baghestan plan (Fig. 4) reflects well the social and economic life of village residents. Nothing about the layout suggests an imposed order, as might have been the case had the village been built all at once, as sometimes happens, for example, when nomads settle. In­stead, construction in the village proceeds gradually and by individ­ual decision. House sites are either inherited or bought from other in­dividuals; so far they are easy to come by and inexpensive. In Tauran there is no intervening agent such as the state, a village-owning landlord, or a communal system of redivision and redistribution (all of which have been known elsewhere in Iran) to organize either fields or settlement.

The plan of the residential part of the village reflects present-day com­munity organization. Baghestan na­ture as a cohesive settlement is shown in the nucleated layout and in the fact that it contains only one religious structure, one community bathhouse, one cemetery, and one schoolhouse, all of which are shared by the whole village. Three separate threshing floors and a number of milking sites reflect the presence of smaller groups that cooperate in pro­ductive activities.

The expression of similarities and differences at the household level, however, should be sought in in­dividual houses and compounds. Householders own both their domes­tic dwellings and buildings for ani­mals and storage. Frequently these have been owner-built, or at least supervised by the owner while under construction. Remodeling and re­orienting doors or windows of older structures is a simple task with these mudbrick buildings, and is a com­mon practice.

As mentioned earlier, households are nuclear in type, sometimes ex­tended by unmarried adults. On average there are five persons per household, although there may be as few as one or as many as nine. The houses in which the members live are composed of single-room units that open onto a courtyard or outside space rather than communicating with one another (Fig. 5a,b). With the exception of the bathhouse (built underground to particular specifica­tions) and the gal’a! (discussed be­low), all these units are similar in construction technique and in plan: they are rectangular mudbrick build­ings with a single door and perhaps a window or two. Most share common walls with at least one other unit, even though it is not possible to walk from one room to another without going outside.

But there are differences in house plans as well as similarities. The most obvious is a difference in scale. Walled courtyards differ both in area and in the number of rooms that open onto them. Individual rooms themselves differ in size. Are these differences significant, and if so, what do they signify?

Every household has a main dwel­ling room—the living room—where the whole family sleeps, eats, and entertains (Fig. 6). These rooms are similar in appearance. They vary in size (typically about 13 sq m, but ranging from 10 to 17.5 sq m); never­theless, they are still all relatively small. It might he expected that this frequently used room would reflect economic differences among house­holds. But living rooms are very much alike in architectural elabora­tion (niches, shelves), finish (plain plaster, clay wash), and furnishings (sparse, possessions kept out of sight in storerooms). Moreover, living room size and wealth correlate only slightly. In their architectural hold­ings, village households do not differ much, as befits an egalitarian ideo­logy. Villagers succeed in expressing through their dwellings what they say verbally about their social rela­tionships.

Courtyards are, in part, a kind of outdoor living room, especially in the hot seasons (Fig. 7). But court­yards are more public than are living rooms, and it might be thought that households wishing to show off their economic status would do so through the relative size of these spaces. Yet, although they vary greatly in dimen­sions, ranging from below 5 to over 200 sq m in area, courtyard size correlates only slightly with wealth. Like living room size, courtyard size here is not a good indicator of economic differences.

Thus, the size of a particular space, such as a living room or a courtyard, does not correlate well with economic status. But house holdings comprise other kinds of structures as well, in particular stor­age rooms and stables. Do wealthier people have larger houses in the overall sense? In Baghestan, every household has one living room, two at the most when a storeroom is converted for temporary winter use. But the total number of rooms per household shows a wide variation, ranging from 2 to 10; total amount of roofed space varies from 18.5 to 134.8 sq m. Unlike the previous comparisons, however, total number of rooms and wealth show a rela­tively strong positive correlation. That is, wealthier households do tend to have more house space. This fact appears to have little to do with display, however. The extra rooms are not luxury items but tools of production for which the wealthier have a greater need. They are used to house animals, shelter food pro­cessing tasks, and store equipment, agricultural produce, fodder, and firewood, which the rich have more of.

Of course, more rooms could serve to signal economic differences to others. But to do so they would need to be clearly identifiable with their owner—for example, by being placed within the owner’s com­pound. Here, however, these ad­ditional utility rooms tend to be separated from their owner’s living quarters, located in other parts of the village, a dispersal made pos­sible, but not determined, by inheri­tance and ownership patterns (Horne 1982). Neither by walking through the village nor by reading its plan could one securely identify all the rooms that belong to any given village household.

Reflections of the Past

So far the viewpoint has been what archaeologists call synchronic, that is, it falls within a single time period—in this case the present. But archaeologists are also concerned with diachronic analyses in which the viewpoint is through time rather than across space at one point in time. This approach enables them not only to study and explain varia­tion within settlements or a society, but also the ways in which settle­ments and society change. Such an approach applies here as well. In spite of the persistence of many characteristics of rural life and archi­tecture, Middle Eastern villages are not timeless entities, unchanged in form and organization over the cen­turies. If we leave the village of the 1970s and look back to the turn of the century and earlier, we find in Tauran a strikingly different settle­ment pattern and village morphol­ogy from that found today.

Cite This Article

Horne, Lee. "Reading Village Plans." Expedition Magazine 33, no. 1 (March, 1991): -. Accessed February 29, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/reading-village-patterns/


This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to digitalmedia@pennmuseum.org.