The burned house horizon

Here is something weird I encountered recently:

In the archaeology of Neolithic Europe, the burned house horizon is the geographical extent of the phenomenon of presumably intentionally burned settlements.

This was a widespread and long-lasting tradition in what is now Southeastern and Eastern Europe, lasting from as early as 6500 BCE (the beginning of the Neolithic) to as late as 2000 BCE (the end of the Chalcolithic and the beginning of the Bronze Age). 

Although there is still debate about why the house burning was practiced, the evidence seems to indicate that it was highly unlikely to have been accidental. There is also debate about why this would have been done deliberately and regularly, since these burnings could destroy the entire settlement.

This is strange! I can immediately think of some reasons that deliberately burning your village and building a different one from scratch might be useful, though. Well, one reason. A custom of this sort, however justified by the community, could have the result of reducing contamination by pathogens. Maybe that was what kept the custom going? Because maybe communities that practiced this sort of deliberate destruction of their villages reduced the level of disease in their community?

A custom that immediately springs to mind, described or at least referenced by Tony Hillerman in his mysteries, is the Navajo custom of burning or destroying a house where someone has died. Plus tools used to bury someone are destroyed afterward, according to this site. I wonder if beliefs at all similar — the unclean nature of a dead body, the danger from evil spirits, the importance of getting rid of anything to do with death — led to this destruction of whole villages.

Anyway, I thought it was interesting.

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3 thoughts on “The burned house horizon”

  1. Very odd, what they’ve discovered in trying to duplicate the effects making it clear the destruction was deliberate – but for a whole settlement? I could see purification from death/evil spirits/whatever for a dwelling, but not for all structures in a village. I was thinking maybe destroy and move a bit away in cases of plague or something, but there seems to be too many examples.. And some rebuilt on the footprints of the old places.

    Changing of the religious guard, perhaps? Destroy everything from the old priest(hood) time and rebuild?

  2. Would doing this have helped keep mice and/or rat infestations down?
    That might limit or stop the spread of certain illnesses, like the plague (carried by rats from Asia to Europe) or the hantavirus (carried by mice in the southwestern US).

    If you got mice in the house in the old US southwest, and the people in the house fell ill with the hantavirus, and people moved out and the hantavirus spread stopped, that could easily lead to a tradition of abandoning a house if mice have been seen in it too many times, or if someone died in there. In fact, I think I remember something like that tradition of abandoning houses in Hillerman’s books being related to mice and hantavirus.
    Now those pueblo houses didn’t have much wood in their construction, and wood was precious in the desert, so burning the house down wouldn’t be very practical for them. In western Russia and eastern Europe, wood was plentiful, and much more widely used for building, so it would be much easier to burn a house if it became infested or a source of pathogens.

    Then you might get a tradition or superstition building up around that, like “if you see three rats together three times in the house, it’s time to burn it down or the evil curse of illness and death will fall on the settlement”. At that point it becomes hard to prove the source of the tradition, as it might center around anyone dying from any illness, not just the rodent-borne ones, or even on something unrelated that happened once at the same time, like five magpies flying in circles…

    Or it might be triggered by other (intestinal) parasites like worms*, or cholera or typhoid or something like that. If humans had been living somewhere long enough to get lots of contamination into the soil or water, they’d have to move to clean land. Lots of people don’t like to leave a known situation as long as it’s bearable, so a custom of burning down the dwellings might be the only way to trigger a periodic relocation. Except that doesn’t work if they rebuild in the same spot.
    * I’ve read that for migrating herds, intestinal parasites are a limiting factor, even more than predators. The ones on the end eat grass contaminated by worm eggs from the poop of the ones in front, and grow weak and sick. If they’re not picked off by predators they will die anyway in winter, but because they die more slowly they have more time to spread the parasites, and the herd gets sicker, until the herd is thinned enough that the healthier animals can all get to uncontaminated food.

    I’m also thinking it might have had the side-effect of keeping the society more egalitarian. No one dynasty can build up too much inherited wealth and power if everyone has to start off from scratch every so often.
    Maybe that was at least part of the reason for a burning: the old chief died, now we burn everything and start anew, with the most capable person at this moment becoming the new leader, instead of the person who would inherit the old chief’s house (with the risk of internecine fights over who would get what).
    Neolithic society was much more egalitarian than most modern nations, from what I’ve read. No hereditary kings/oligarchs building up wealth and power, with a warrior caste keeping the poor peasants oppressed, until sedentary agriculture really took off.

  3. Hanneke, it seems to me that it’s perfectly possible to have a custom that “When this happens, burn the settlement and move,” and I agree that certain kinds of pests turning up, or people dying of certain diseases, would be a reasonable trigger. I don’t know how hard these buildings were to construct, but it might not have been too enormous an undertaking to build a settlement and build another one. Rather than egalitarianism being an effect, it might have been a cause: once people accumulate stuff, they become unwilling to destroy or abandon it, so the custom could have died out because the society became more settled, more agrarian, and less egalitarian. If I were writing this custom into a book, I would definitely do it with a semi-nomadic people who live in a fairly egalitarian society.

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