The “Vitruvian” House vs. The “Prudden Unit”

I’m in the mood to compare apples to oranges.  What better way than by looking at two site types that occurred roughly during the same time periods, but on opposite sides of the world.  There is a common site type you will see when visiting both the Four Corners region of the United States and various archaeological sites relating to the Ancient Roman world–the dwelling.  Be it a proper Roman domus, as defined by Vetruvius,  in ancient Pompeii, or the remains of a single story “L-shaped” unit pueblo in southeastern Utah: The house is ubiquitous.  The two types of house share many elements in common.   Both provided shelter and security for their residents.  Each incorporated areas for cooking, places for sleeping, storage, work and spaces dedicated to the spiritual beliefs of the family.   The similarities really do fade off at this point.

In the ancient Roman world, one needed to make a big impression with his house if he wanted to amount to anything on the social/political scale.  In order to create an impression of high social standing, and compete with everyone else doing the same the owner of the house (the dominus) might build his house along current fashionable guidelines, adding his own special features, if he could afford to. 

A "Typical Roman" house

A “typical Roman house” one might visit in Pompeii, for example,was built along a symmetrical, axial layout that would have a visitor entering the house through large doors, with a shop or small business space located on either side facing the street.  Through the doors, one entered the house via a hall – or “fauces” – that opened into an atrium.  At the far side of the atrium –  open to the sky to collect rainwater in a basin called an “impluvium” – would be the tablinum where one would find the dominus waiting to meet with clients or other business contacts.  Beyond that would be  a garden; the wealthier the dominus, the more elaborate the garden.  To either side of this axis you would find, symetrically aligned, the various  private rooms for sleeping, storage, and dining. 

Atrium with Impluvium

 There might be a kitchen in the back of the house as well as slaves quarters.  A wealthier home might have it’s own heated bath, or multiple dining rooms, or both!  The size and quality of decoration could vary greatly from house to house, depending on one’s wealth and status.  

A private garden

Often the decoration you see in the ancient great houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum is, for lack of a better term, “over the top.”  All the more to impress and influence.    Keep in mind, owning a single family home was a luxury that only the wealthier members of Roman society could afford.   Many of the wealthier Romans owned several homes, unlike the average Anasazi farmer living in the ancient American Southwest.

Similar to the ancient Roman world, there is strong evidence of a social class discrepancy in the settlements associated with Chacoan Great Houses and Great Kivas.  The Great Houses contained lots of storage rooms and larger-than-average living area rooms that appear to have been inhabited by only a lucky (elite) few.  This is a whole topic unto itself and will have to wait.  I want to look at the “Unit Type” pueblo aka the “Prudden Unit” (as defined by T. Mitchell Prudden), the “run of the mill” house that one encounters in all parts of the Four Corners area. 

Portion of an excavated "Unit Pueblo"

The “Prudden Unit” or “Unit Pueblo” is typically comprised of a contiguous block of masonry rooms, arranged in an L-shape, an arc or an east-west line.  

A typical "Prudden Unit" type pueblo

Usually, there will be a ceremonial structure, or kiva associated with it, often located on the south side as well as a midden or trash dump.  Typically containing no more than 12 rooms, these unit pueblos were dispersed and based around familial ties.   Some theorize that, based on their distribution pattern, they may represent some sort of supra-community organization. 

As for elaborate, luxurious extras? Well, sometimes a “unit pueblo” might have a masonry tower associated with it, possibly connected to the kiva by an underground tunnel.  Some built fixed grinding bins for processing corn meal–upright slabs forming a box-like barrier against the wind.  A well-outfitted living room would have an upright slab wind screen near the door to help divert drafts away from the hearth. 

Grinding or mealing bins

One major difference between the “Prudden Unit” and a “True Roman House” would be the function of the house itself.  Most of the small rooms in a “unit pueblo” room block were dedicated to storage.  The daily”public” life took place outside, on a rooftop or out on the flat area (plaza) in front of the roomblock. 

 The “living” rooms were primarily used for sleeping, or eating/workspace in bad weather.  As for “over the top” decoration, I’ve seen examples of interior painting in rooms located in protected alcoves–not “unit pueblos.”   Kivas  had plastered interior walls that could then be painted.  Based on the scale and lack of elaborate architectural detail in the “Prudden Unit”  I would say that the function of the “Unit Pueblo” was geared more to providing shelter and storage to the family living there, than to impressing passers by or potential clients. 

There–apples to oranges.  I know, I had to stretch for this one.

This entry was posted in Ancient American Southwest, Ancient Rome and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *