unizeit Schriftzug

Left-hand twist in house building

A small special feature of our perception provides a plausible explanation for the orientation of Neolithic houses.

Aerial photo of an excavation site
© Nils Müller-Scheeßel

Aerial photo of the excavation site of an early Neolithic settlement near Vráble in Slovakia.

Our perception has been known to play tricks on us sometimes and this means our impression of the world does not always tally with reality. One of these phenomena is known as “pseudoneglect”. It describes the fact that most people favour their left field of vision over their right. If asked to mark the midpoint of a horizontal line, they tend to drift left of the actual centre. It now turns out that this perceptual disorder seemed to affect how our prehistoric ancestors built their houses.

Together with colleagues from the Slovak Academy of Sciences, researchers at Kiel University studied settlements of what is known as linear pottery culture, one which was based in broad areas of Central and Eastern Europe around 7,000 years ago. The linear pottery culture makers built their 30 metre long houses, which would last 30 to 40 years, from wood and clay. When one of these long houses became dilapidated, its inhabitants would build a new one right next to the old one. In principle, all houses in settlements of individual regions followed the same orientation. In Eastern Europe, for example, the house axes ran from north-east to south-west.

On closer inspection of the individual houses, the researchers discovered something odd: independent of the overall orientation of the houses, the orientation of newly built houses deviated by a few degrees from the existing building and this deviation was always counter-clockwise. “We see pseudoneglect as the reason for this phenomenon,” said Kiel-based archaeologist Dr Nils Müller-Scheeßel, who coordinated the study within the framework of the Collaborative Research Centre “Scales of Transformation” (CRC 1266).

But how did he come to this conclusion? This effect is, after all, hardly well-known. “I observed the left-hand rotation in the Slovakian settlement of Vráble and then looked at other sites, hundreds of kilometres away, and saw the same thing there. Including sites where the basic orientation of the long houses was different. After other attempts at an explanation had proved implausible, such as orientation towards celestial bodies, it became clear to me: it must have something to do with human perception.” Müller-Scheeßel searched the Internet, spoke to psychologists and established findings.

The counter-clockwise rotation became discernible through geophysical magnetic measurements of settlement areas. Here differences in the earth’s magnetic field are used to highlight archaeological findings lying underground. In this way, the structures of a settlement can be discerned without having to excavate every single house. According to Müller-Scheeßel, this would not be at all possible given the amount of work involved and also not desirable from the viewpoint of historic monument preservation. “Over the last few years, we have discovered hundreds of early Neolithic houses in our area of work in south-western Slovakia using geophysical prospection methods,” explained the archaeologist.

Explaining the left-hand rotation of house axes through pseudoneglect has very practical effects on the dating of these houses as they can now be put into a relative temporal order. The further to the left the axis of a house points, the later it was built. Müller-Scheeßel added: “Of course, we still need to use natural scientific processes such as radiocarbon dating to determine the absolute age of individual houses.”

Archaeologists have observed a counter-clockwise rotation at excavation sites from other periods and cultures, too. “If pseudoneglect is taken as an explanation there too, the importance of our study extends far beyond the dating of linear pottery culture settlements,” said Müller-Scheeßel, happily.

Author: Angelika Hoffmann