Home: A Human Project With Many Meanings

Highclere Castle, used for the exterior filming of Downton Abbey. By JB + UK Planet. Wikimedia Commons.

Recently I’ve been indulging in early episodes of Downton Abbey. I confess my fascination with the fictional exploits of aristocrats (and the servants who answer their bells) in a sprawling Yorkshire country home that looms large as a character.

“I’ve given my life to Downton,” gruffs The Lord Grantham to his mother in the second episode of the Masterpiece Theatre series. “I claim no career beyond the nurture of the house and the estate. It is my third parent and my fourth child.”

From English estates that have been passed down through generations to Navajo hogans that must be departed when someone dies there, humans have arranged a variety of dwelling places with many meanings. Archaeologist Jerry D. Moore explores their rich permutations in The Prehistory of Home (University of California Press).

Navajo hogan.
Photo by PRA. CC By-SA 3.0

While a number of animal species construct shelters for themselves, only human lodgings take different forms based upon factors such as social status, cost, style, and symbol, writes Moore, a professor of anthropology at California State University-Dominguez Hills. “In adddition to their basic and fundamental function of providing shelter from natural elements, dwellings are powerful and complex concentrates of human existence. More than passive backdrops to human actions, our dwellings reflect and shape our lives.”

When this business of home-making began is a question that archaeologists have struggled to address. To do so, they must interpret fragmentary or scarce evidence of occupation, from postholes to baked-clay hearths to debris from everyday activities, Moore explains. “Between about 1.4 and 0.7 million years ago, hominids created the sites we can recognize as temporary encampments,” he writes. “More anchored than chimpanzee or gorilla nests, these sites were places of arrival and returns, locations where our ancestors made stone tools and cooked over ancient fires.”

It was only later, when humans began to stay in one place for longer periods of time, Moore surmises, that homes became imbued with symbolic meaning. In one, comparatively recent example, he writes about the circular, domed Navajo hogan, which first appeared in the American Southwest about three centuries ago. Even as construction materials and size have changed over time, the hogan still serves as both “a domestic space and a sacred space.”

Here’s an excerpt:

The east-facing door receives the first blessings of dawn-light. The southern side of the hogan is the male side and the north side is female. The western side is the seat of honor allocated to singers and shamans …

While there are specific spatial associations within the hogan–men should move to the left, women to the right–there are no internal divisions. Just as the Navajo recognizes the distinctive but intertwined realms of male and female in the cosmos, the hogan reflects the unity of differences …

The hogan is a living space and a space that lives. Ritually sanctified during its construction, hogans are alive and must be blessed and fed. Alternatively bad fortune and death contaminate the hogan, sometimes irreversibly. If someone dies in the hogan, the house is abandoned and avoided. The corpse is removed through a hole chopped in the north or west wall, instead of through the east-facing doorway. A hogan where someone has died is a “ghost hogan” or a “no-hearth home.” The entire homestead site may be abandoned until the ghost hogan collapses. No new hogan will be built near the contaminated no-hearth home.

I’m in the early stages of my Downton Abbey watching (so no spoilers, please). But somehow I doubt Lord Grantham’s family would vacate their own dwelling-place quite as readily.