Query: Orientation of cities and buildings
Friday, 16 January 2004 11:27:42 +0100
From: Taro Nagazumi
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:
- 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?
- 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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Robert Kirkbride <email@example.com>
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.
Copyright ©2004 Kim Williams