Considering household wealth: residential architecture

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

People live in houses. Clearly, that’s not true everywhere at every time. But, pre-modern peoples tended to live in structures we are comfortable calling houses. Of course, structures with multiple living units, commonly found in cities, but also in places like the Puebloan areas of the North American Southwest, began to be built long ago, too.

Archaeology is a comparative science. Archaeologists compare how people lived in different times and in different places. So, it’s reasonable to consider, for example, the houses of Mississippian-period peoples who lived in Georgia.

Potts Tract Structure 1 Fig 10 Hally 1970

Mississippian-period residential structure excavated in northwest Georgia. This is Figure 10 from David J. Hally’s Archaeological Investigation of the Potts’ Tract Site (9-Mu-103), Carters Dam, Murray County, Georgia (1970; University of Georgia Laboratory of Archaeology Series, Report no. 6, available online here).

The Spanish who arrived in Georgia in the 1500s encountered what archaeologists call Mississippian-period peoples. Their houses had interior wooden posts supporting roofs and exterior walls often of clay applied to a woven mesh of twigs and branches, commonly called wattle-and-daub construction. Archaeological excavations show that these houses often had interior benches and a fireplace. Some houses had exterior porticos, or covered areas where people could do various activities.

It is relatively easy to compare the floor-space of houses, but you have to also understand how many people regularly lived in the house, which is more difficult. Even the phrase “lived in” takes on different meanings to different peoples—and at different times.

Ancient peoples often used structures more for storage and sleeping than for socializing, doing chores, and eating, when compared to the activities we commonly accomplish in modern homes. However, when you also consider activities that might be undertaking on a suburban deck, as well as within the house, you begin to understand how Mississippian peoples used the immediate area around their residential structures. We might have an open fire (barbeque grill) as part of the deck, many chairs or built-in seating, and space for socializing. These activities, weather permitting, happened around Mississippian homes.

Richard Blanton, in his 1994 book Houses and Households: A Comparative Study (Plenum Press, New York), tackled the complex issue of comparing houses and households cross-culturally, in particular wealth and standard-of-living issues. Houses, at least in part, must reflect the relative wealth of its occupants. Clearly, this comparative assessment is difficult with, for example, Mississippian-period houses—they date to an ancient time when people did not use money, so assessing wealth is difficult. For example, he notes on page 188:

With housing, as for other types of material possessions, some variation is due to differing degrees of propensity to express wealth materially. It follows that any attempt to evaluate wealth differences without knowledge of the underlying consumer behavior will be doomed to fail.

What other issues can you think of that affect the relative wealth of households? Does the current housing financing situation offer any insights? What makes a house a house? How do households vary? How does all this affect our understanding of past peoples?