Shelter in Ancient Civilizations

Around 4000 BC, civilizations arose in the river valleys of the Nile in Egypt and the Tigris-Euphrates in Mesopotamia (now in Iraq). By about 2000 BC, civilizations had also developed in the valleys of the Indus River in Pakistan and the Yellow River in China. The people of these civilizations developed new techniques to build their homes.

In Egypt, for example, houses had several chambers leading off a small court. An outside staircase led to a flat roof, which was used for the evening meal and for sleeping. The ancient Egyptians developed the mulguf. Nearly all their homes were built from sun-dried clay bricks. Stone was plentiful but difficult to cut, shape, and transport. Only kings, nobles, and the wealthiest commoners could afford to use it for their dwellings.

In Babylonia, a part of Mesopotamia, the homes looked much like those of Egypt. Babylonia's soil was marshy, however, so houses were built on brick platforms to raise them above street level. Ventilation was not as advanced as in Egypt.

The earliest civilizations in Europe arose on Crete and the islands of the Aegean Sea, as well as in Greece and Rome. On the island of Crete, people built houses of stone, which was plentiful. The main room, called the megaron, contained the hearth. Cretan women performed household tasks in this room. Drinking water was brought into palaces through clay pipes.

In ancient Greece, houses were built of stone, wood, and clay bricks. The better homes had an open court called a peristylum. The Athenians lived in very modest homes. They used their building skills to create majestic public structures such as temples, baths, and the agora, or marketplace, in which they spent most of their time. The Romans used many materials to build their dwellings--clay bricks, wood, lava, stucco, granite, marble, and glass. Almost every house in Rome had a chamber called the atrium which was open to the sky. Rainwater falling through the open roof was collected in a large tank below for household use. The Romans developed a heating device called the hypocaust. Pipes carrying hot air from large ovens ran underneath the floors and warmed them. The traditional houses of rural Korea have a similar device known as the ondol. The workers of Rome were crowded into apartment buildings made partly of wood. These were easily damaged by fires and earthquakes.

Shelter in the Middle Ages

A Germanic tribe, the Saxons, settled in Britain in the 5th century AD. A Saxon family and its servants worked, ate, and slept in a large, one-room wooden building called a heal, or hall. The roof was a layer of bark covered with grassy sod. It reached so near the ground that animals could graze on it. The "wind's eye," or window, was an opening in the center of the roof which let in light and air. It also served as an outlet for smoke from the large fire used for heating and cooking.

During the Middle Ages, kings and wealthy noblemen built fortified stone castles for protection from enemy attacks. In England, the castles were surrounded by high, thick walls and deep, water-filled trenches called moats. The hall was the principal room of the medieval castles. The castles also contained the lord's private rooms, a kitchen, a pantry, a wine cellar, and perhaps a chapel. Fireplaces could be built in their walls, and crude chimneys appeared in castles during the 12th century.

Peasants had their homes beyond the castle and its fields. They built huts with walls made from wattle and daub--interlaced sticks and twigs covered with clay. The half timber house was introduced into England from the Continent. It had a framework of tree trunks and heavy wooden beams. The spaces between were filled in with wattle and daub or brick. Better homes had two stories and included a bedroom and work and storage rooms as well as the main hall.

English town houses during the Middle Ages often had shops on the first floor. The upper stories projected into the street. They blocked air circulation and light but protected the merchants' stalls below. By the 1400s, poor city dwellers used the topmost story, originally a watchtower called a garret, for their shelter. The constant threat of fire led to the passage of laws ordering that new houses be built of stone, slate, and tile instead of wood.

By the 15th and 16th centuries, the better houses were built with more attention to comfort. The number of rooms, particularly bedrooms, increased, offering greater privacy. The hall grew less important and eventually became merely an entrance room. The house itself was built with wings around a courtyard, allowing more light and air to be admitted. Fortifications, such as battlements and towers, were used increasingly for decoration only.

Modern Shelter

During the Middle Ages homes had been designed and built by stonemasons, carpenters, bricklayers, and other craftsmen, most of whose names are now unknown. Beginning in the 17th century, however, craftsmen began to build from the designs of architects, many of whom became famous for their work (see Architecture).

In the late 1500s a type of toilet called a water closet was introduced into England from continental Europe. Beginning in 1619, piped water was supplied to houses in London. In the same year, King James I issued a building code prohibiting the overhanging stories of town houses and ordering that all new houses be built with straight walls.

Improvements in lighting and heating were made in the 18th and 19th centuries. Gas and kerosine lamps were introduced. Iron stoves for burning coal instead of wood were used. At this time homes were filled with furnishings mass-produced by power-driven machinery in newly erected factories. The workers in these factories lived in cramped, dismal row houses, small apartments, or rented rooms. The areas in which these dwellings were built later became the slums of large industrial cities.

Shelter in the United States

The early Indians of North America lived in a number of different types of shelter. In the Northeast, round houses or rectangular longhouses were built from bent poles covered with deerskin. The Penobscot Indians erected wigwams covered with birch bark. The Iroquois built large longhouses covered with bark shingles.

Most Indians of the Great Plains lived in portable, cone-shaped tepees made from poles covered with animal hides. In the Southwest, certain tribes built pueblos from adobe and stone. In the Far North, Eskimos used three types of dwellings--tents of skin in the summer, huts of stone, turf, bones, and dirt in the winter, and snow igloos for the temporary shelter of winter hunting parties.

The English colonists who first landed in New England had to build shelters quickly to allow enough time for planting. They probably lived in rough houses of wattle and daub. Later, they may have built half- timber houses like those they left behind in England. For protection from the cold New England winters, the settlers soon covered their homes with wooden planks called clapboards to provide extra insulation. Huge fireplaces using a single chimney were important parts of the house.

In the South, the English colonists used brick as well as wood for their houses. Some homes had porches two stories high. Huge chimneys were common. In California and the Southwest, many Spanish colonists lived, like the Indians, in adobe houses. The early French settlers in New Orleans built half-timber houses. Later, the homes of the French in New Orleans had plaster walls painted in pastel colors, delicate wrought-iron balconies, and courtyards in the rear.

A most important type of early American shelter was the log cabin. German and Swedish colonists introduced it. When the pioneers pressed westward, they built log cabins. But in the treeless Great Plains, they built houses of sod bricks cut from the prairie.

Power-driven machinery came into use in the United States in the first half of the 19th century. Sawmills, using steam power, provided abundant lumber. Nails and other metal products became cheap and plentiful. Steamships, canals, and finally railroads made these materials available in all settled communities at a relatively low cost.

Inventors and manufacturers introduced many household conveniences. By the 1850s, fireplaces were being replaced by coal-burning stoves. Later in the century, central heating by furnaces and radiators was used. Homes today enjoy modern plumbing and use gas or electricity for cooking and lighting.

Modern homes have a number of rooms, each of which may be designed to serve a particular purpose. This purpose is indicated by the name--the kitchen, dining room, bedroom, bathroom, and, in larger homes, the utility room, family room or recreation room (once called the rumpus room), the den, and the study or library. But many rooms now combine several purposes. Modern kitchens or bathrooms may contain laundry equipment. In many new homes, the living room and dining room have been combined.

Some city apartments may have as many rooms as a house. Others may be small efficiency apartments where space is conserved by the use of a kitchenette and of sliding wall panels that give access to a bed and storage. Loft apartments may consist of one enormous room with a few freestanding walls. Apartments may have radiant heating, indirect lighting, central air-conditioning, and built-in laborsaving appliances like garbage-disposal units and dishwashers.

Shelter has come to mean more than just "a roof over one's head." Today a dwelling that is dilapidated or lacks indoor plumbing or has more than one person per room is considered inadequate shelter.

But many low-income people can afford shelter only in old and nearly worn-out buildings in which the indoor plumbing is broken and space is limited. They are trapped in decaying neighborhoods that have degenerated into slums. This problem is discussed in the article Housing.


This article was reviewed by Stephen W. Jacobs, Professor of Architecture, Cornell University, and Fred B. Kniffen, Professor Emeritus, Department of Geography and Anthropology, Louisiana State University.

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