Abstract. Answers to a reader's query about orientation principles for buildings and cities in the Nexus Network Journal.

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Query: Orientation of cities and buildings

Date: Friday, 16 January 2004 11:27:42 +0100
From: Taro Nagazumi <tnagazumi@cc.e-mansion.com>

Something that has always interested me is the orientation of buildings and cities. According to the excellent illustrated book, CITY: A story of Roman Planning and Construction, by David Macaulay 1974 (I have a Japanese version at hand), there is a priest who sacrifices a pheasant and a rabbit and checks their liver to find out if the area is suitable for living. My questions:

  1. Was this all religious (genius loci related?) or was it scientific in a way that checking the liver revealed the soil and chemical pollutants of the area?
  2. Where was this altar in the center of the later Roman grid city? ( in the forum where via principatis meets via praetoria)

My curiosity comes from a simple fact that there is an ancient burial mound in my grandfather's town in Western Japan. As I recall there were 2 ancient tombs found there one with the head to the North another with the head to the West. Near my house in Yokohama there is a square shaped ancient tomb on a hill site. The main person lies in the center with the head to North, while his wife and son are both flanking the body left and right with head North. Another body is placed above him with the Head towards West. West was where the rice culture came and of course the jet stream flows West to East. North South is more Nomadic, Argonautic? Some Nomadic Cultures apparently seem so Sun Set driven(East to West) like Genghis Hahn.

If you look at the Chinese and Mayan City/Building orientations I see some Sun Locus influences (Astronomy), Gravity Orientation (the so-called Global Gitter?) related as well. If you look at the historical map of Europe and plot which group of people traveled in layers it is always very fascinating.

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From: Richard Haut <hautrichard@hotmail.com>

The altar will be the Temple dedicated to Vesta (the Goddess of hearth and home). The reason is that public ritual was similar to privately-held rituals and the Temple of Vesta is the "hearth" of the city, in exactly the same was as there is a hearth in a private home.

The sacrifice of a living creature (which could be of many types) was undertaken as a sacrifice to a specific god. The reading of the entrails was not, as far as I am aware, for the benefit of those making the sacrifice, but to ensure that the creature sacrificed
had been "well received". If it had been well received, then all would be fine for those making the sacrifice, and if not, then bad things might happen.

From: Emanuel Jannasch <ejannasch@hfx.eastlink.ca>

The best reference I can think of concerning the ritual founding of Rome, and on the founding of Indo-European settlements in general, is Joseph Rykwert's The Idea of a Town. If we study the issue as carefully as Rykwert has, it seems like a place needs many anchors and Rome must be understood as polycentric. Even the forum itself is dotted with numerous kinds of center.

I wonder how much the Indo-European lore corresponds with Chinese geomantic practice, and I wonder to what extent Shinto foundation rites might be related to or independent of either?

Thank you for your observation about the entrails. Up to know my feeling was that they were simply used as a kind of Rorsach device, a touchstone for bringing out subconscious knowledge on the seer's part, rather like tea leaves. The idea that entrails might offer ecological information, and that this might represent the origin of these rites, is provocative.

From: Peter Schneider <peter.schneider@colorado.edu>

Vitruvius writes about the practice of studying the liver of animals in the fourth chapter of his first book:

9. The precepts of the ancients, in this respect, should ever be observed. They always, after sacrifice, carefully inspected the livers of those animals fed on that spot whereon the city was to be built, or whereon an encampment was intended. If the livers were diseased and livid, they tried others, in order to ascertain whether accident or disease was the cause of the imperfection; but if the greater part of the experiments proved, by the sound and healthy appearance of the livers, that the water and food of the spot were wholesome, they selected it for the city. If the reverse, they inferred, as in the case of cattle, so in that of the human body, the water and food of such a place would become pestiferous; and they therefore abandoned it, in search of another, valuing health above all other considerations.

10. That the salubrity of a tract of land is discovered by the pastures or food which it furnishes is sufficiently clear, from certain qualities of the lands in Crete, situate in the vicinity of the river Pothereus, which lie between the two states of GnosusLink to the editor's note at the bottom of this page and Gortyna. There are pasturages on each side of this river: the cattle, however, pastured on the Gnossian side, when opened, are found with their spleens perfect; whilst those on the opposite side, nearer to Gortyna, retain no appearance of a spleen. Physicians, in their endeavors to account for this singular circumstance, discovered a species of herb eaten by the cattle, whose property was that of diminishing the spleen. Hence arose the use of the herb which the Cretans call atsplhnoj, as a cure for those affected with enlarged spleen.

There's an extended description of the use of the liver for divination and site selection in the Rowland and Howe translation of Vitruvius, pp. 151-155.

The best reference -- it's the one Rykwert refers to -- on the ritual of establishing an ancient city is in the book The Ancient City written by Numa Denis Fustel De Coulanges. Its an old book and quite difficult to find, but it is the best book written on all of the forces that interacted to shape the city in Rome and ancient Greece.

From: Robert Kirkbride <rek2@earthlink.net>

As cited by Mr. Schneider, Vitruvius's "On the Salubrity of Sites" takes us to the mark for Mr. Nagazumi's first question. These passages underscore as well our own temporal and philosophical distance from the mark. As forms of "knowing," the scientific and religious ramifications of ritual sacrifice would not have been considered separately, but enfolded into one another as essential aspects to "the art of dwelling." To the suggested readings of Rykwert and Coulanges I would add Ruth Padel's In and Out of the Mind (Princeton, 1992), which addresses the relationship between innards and external expressions of psychological states in ancient Greek tragedy.

Animal sacrifice still bears "scientific" significance, at least aquatically. Through a project I have been working on, I've learned that water quality (presence of heavy metals and other contaminants) is often tested by capturing local fish, particularly bottom feeders (catfish) and predators (small mouth bass), and examining their scales and innards. Their digestive and intestinal tracks are mixed together in a blender and sent to a laboratory for analysis. Thus animal entrails remain a means to speculate on the salubrity of a site and its waterways, though I am not certain if other land animals are examined as well. Also uncertain is whether the biologists engaged in the capture of the fish (through seining or shocking) consider themselves to be the descendants of Roman augurs.

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