Welcome to Designing From Bones, where we use archaeology, myth, mysteries and history to unearth the stories of tomorrow.
This week continues a Special DfB series on unusual historical settings and how we can use them as inspiration for our fiction. If the planet provided a place to build, humans have tried to live there. Today we look at the homes of the troglodytes. No, not the smelly lizard creatures from Dungeons & Dragons, but rather, actual cave dwellers or cavemen, right up to the modern age.
If you live in a large flat area where above ground structures are easy to see and dangerous invaders criss-cross your lands, what is an effective way to stay out of site? The answer, at least for the inhabitants of the Matmata region of Tunisia, was to dig a hole and live in it.
No one is quite sure how or why the tradition started, but in prehistory, the villagers of Matmata began to dig large pits into the stony ground. Once the pit was dug, they would then carve caves into the sides of them in which to live. These low profile homes are difficult to see from the ground view, blending into the terrain until with incredible efficiency.
As a matter of fact, the troglodyte homes at Matmata remained virtually unnoticed until 1967 when a torrential rainstorm lasting 22 days flooded the pits, causing many of the man-made homes to collapse and drove the villagers to seek government assistance.
The structures at Matmata are comparable to a giant foxhole with benefits.
- Difficult to detect from a distance, especially when the main pits are connected by trenches that allow villagers to move between them without rising above the level of the ground.
- Allow for custom design. Want to add a new bedroom for the expanding family, just dig it out. Want to expand the living room, scrape an extra foot or two off a wall. Think a built in entertainment center would be cool, carve it right into an existing wall (although the wiring might be a bit tough to install).
- Connectability. Complexes can easily be attached by digging tunnels between them, thus turning the village into an ant warren that allows for easy movement in case of invasion. Remember the ancients were more interested in survival from external threats then they were in maintaining privacy from their fellow villagers.
- Fun Fact: At last count, 2116 people continue to live and thrive in the troglodyte homes at Matmata – their main occupation: tourism of their dwellings.
The pits at Matmata are generally connected with the Berbers which is a cultural linguistic group more then a specific people. The Berbers enter history during the Roman Empire and are spread across the whole of North Africa, sharing a common language, innovative mindset and little else. Over time Berber groups have differed on religion, living environment, government and pretty much everything else, but the language keeps them tied together, even if loosely.
Imagine living in one of these troglodyte homes. How would you structure the warren of your living environment? How large would you make the rooms? Would you feel comfortable living underground like this?
One thought that came to mind for me was having a large woven grass mat to pull over the top of the main pit, making it into a “trap door spider” haven for humans. When considering this location for story, think about the reasons a people would want or be forced to live this way. Who are they defending against or hiding from? What would be interesting, entertaining, and novel methods of defense?
In a book I read a couple of months ago the author had an ant-like people living in warren homes around a bowl-shaped central pit. The ant people placed innocuous boulders around the rim to protect themselves from an over-sized anteater that would suck them right out of the ground. When the creature would enter the bowl the ants could roll the boulders into it, disable, kill and use it for food. How will your characters or people defend themselves against an invader that finds their pit homes?
One can find many dwellings cut into the walls of the Loire Valley in France, but Rochemenier is one of the more well-developed locations. At Rochemenier are farmhouses (with up to twenty rooms), farmyards, a chapel and various outbuildings carved into the cliff-side as a protection against invasions. After all, it is harder to knock down a mountain then it is to knock down a stand-alone house. Rochemenier even has a modernized cave home to show that the architectural form is still relevant in the modern era.
The oldest structures date back to the 13th century and offer an excellent vision of using the natural terrain for housing and the necessities of life.
What kinds of things would you include if an entire village was built into a mountain? How would you vent the scents of an underground farmyard? If you had to flee to a place like this due to a nuclear winter what would you stock it with and how would you adapt it? Regardless of the place in time or genre, this type of complex offers excellent versatility.
Font de Gaume
And, back to the roots, my friends. In 1901 a school teacher named Denis Peyrony discovered polychrome paintings while exploring a cave in the Dordogne Valley of south-west France. For the non-artists out there, polychrome is the use of multiple colors in a painting or object, accentuating each other for a greater overall impression.
What is interesting about the paintings that Peyrony found at Font de Gaume is that they were made by inhabitants of the cave sometime around 17000 BCE. And, there aren’t just one or two scribblings, but 230 images of buffalo, horse, mammoth and men. It is believed that this cave was inhabited on and off for at least 9000 years and the dwellers made sure to hang a few pictures on the walls while they were there.
Imagine the flickering light of a fire playing across the polychrome paintings of animals in the silent darkness of the cave. Troglodyte children looking up in wonder would have seen them moving – a place of mystical wonder. Perhaps even the equivalent of a stone age television set.
What interesting things would be found in your troglodyte dwelling? Drawings that come to life? Carvings of mystic symbolism? A face? A handprint? A name?
Only you can decide.
Join me next week when we leave the earth behind and travel to homes among the heavens. For those that wonder, the book referenced above is Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement.