Look With Care at the Shape of the Square

I’m reading David Christian’s Maps of Time, which I’ll probably comment on more extensively here soon.

One small point that caught my attention while reading, however. Christian claims at one point, without a specific attributed sourcing, that sedentary and early agricultural villages everywhere can be identified in part by the fact that the houses they build are square.

I’m just wondering what the evidence is for this claim. I can think of a lot of societies engaged in agriculture that have built round houses. The square house seems to me to be much more ideologically specific wherever I’ve run into it.

This sort of claim is a good example of why I’m a little leery of archaeological work that tries to simplify potentially cultural, intellectual or political issues into materialist claims, or that tries to universalize from a data set that is heavily skewed towards China, the Middle East and Western Europe.

Even as a materialist argument, I’m wondering what evidence there is that square houses last better or are otherwise preferable for permanent settlements.

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7 Responses to Look With Care at the Shape of the Square

  1. mrscoulter says:


    Could it be that what he means to say is that if you find square houses, you know it was agricultural? Not that all agricultural societies build square houses, but rather that nomadic societies DON’T…

    So if you find square houses, you can be fairly confident that you’re dealing with an agricultural society. Round houses, on the other hand, could be either nomadic or agricultural.

    No idea, of course, whether *this* claim is valid either.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh, maybe that is what he means. That seems pretty fair. I read it as, “If you’re agricultural or sedentary, you’ll build square houses”.

  3. Just a guess, but I’d suspect that square houses are a function of building with heavy timber (or sod, come to think of it, works better in lines, too), whereas the kind of light poles and canvas constructions of migratory people are more efficiently and quickly built in the round.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Sure, but you can build more permanent round houses, and some cultures have. The association with timber is a good one. I just thought that Christian was suggesting that somehow settled cultures inevitably build square houses because they’re intrinsically better for settled or agricultural societies. But mrscoulter’s suggestion is probably right–he was more saying that a square house is evidence of a settled culture, whereas a round house could be either.

  5. PreachyPreach says:

    that sedentary and early agricultural villages everywhere can be identified in part by the fact that the houses they build are square

    Like, um, all the roundhouses in pre-Roman Britain. Oh.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, that’s one of the key examples I’m thinking of, Preachy. The square v. round issue in Roman Britain strikes me as being a matter of culture, rather than a matter of agricuculture.

  7. joe o says:

    Page 239 of “maps of time” states that the houses in permanent villages “usually” were square or rectangular and then mentions well-built round houses of northern china as being an exception.

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