METHODOLOGY \PRINCIPLES \Postulates \ 314perc
Version 1: G. Buccellati, February 2009

The role of perception

Perception and perceptual analysis
Collocational vs. perceptual analysis
Function and perception
The built environment
Objects in space
Perceptual geography
Perception of taxonomical classes
The archaeology of perception
The role of virtual reality

Perception and perceptual analysis

     I will not attempt to deal here with the central issues relating to perception as they are raised within the fields of psychology (see, e.g., Gladwell 2005) and philosophy (for the latter, see some comments concerning phenomenology). I will only point to some aspects that are particularly significant for our current concerns. In this respect, I take perception to refer to the way in which segments of the outside world are registered and reconfigured by our individual senses and psyche, a configuration that can be shared and then develops as if a consistency of its own and lasts indefinitely through time. For example, when facing a person we acquire specific information (such as name or profession) but also we register a much larger set of data, some easily defined (such the color of the skin) other less so (such as the gait or the smells). In addition, the setting in which we meet the person also becomes associated with the relative perception, the reasons for the meeting and its outcome, the general feeling elicited in our response to the encounter. This bundle of responses can obviously be quite complex, each element interacting with the other in ways that are hardly susceptible of full analysis (hence the use, in the definition given above, of the term "psyche" instead of a term like "mind" that refers to analytical intellectual procedures).
     The relevance for archaeology is that the spatial arrangement of features and items can, under certain conditions, be understood as having been the stimulus for specific perceptions in the ancient observers that can be argued and assessed, with procedures that are outlined below. This is especially so in view of the quality of permanence that perceptions develop, so that they become as if reified over space and time. I consider these procedures to be in line with, and in some ways alternative to, the goals of cognitive archaeology.
     There are recognizable ways in which space is organized, on at least three levels: architectural volumes, aggregation of objects, natural setting. Perceptual analysis simply pays attention to patterns of correlation in these various areas, which may be interpreted as reflecting choices made by the ancients, and I will give in what follows a few examples for each of these three areas. The fundamental theoretical presupposition is that the analysis be based on clearly definable formal patterns: pointing these out will always retain a primary value, even if further interpretations built on the initial recognition may be questionable. In other words, we may safely attribute intentionality to the formal pattern, even if we may be less certain as to the intended perceptual goal underlying the initial intention.
     It may be noted that this approach is especially useful when there is coherence of the built environment over a large urban scene. This is often lacking in the archaeological context, but to the extent that it is available, we must develop the appropriate sensitivity for recognizing its presence. Baroque architecture is one of the best example of architecture conceived as on a stage, whereby this very aspect of "staging" calls for an audience properly located, i.e., so placed as to allow the best possible view of the architecture.
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Collocational vs. perceptual analysis

     It is important to distinguish the two moments of collocational and perceptual analysis. Collocation refers to the identification of factual spatial correlations, and perception to the correlative attribution of meaning. To be firmly grounded, the interpretive conclusions must first rest on the identification of recurrent distributional patterns. What collocational analysis adds, is the identification of a single point of view from which the distributional arrangement acquires a unified perspective. Such focalization introduces a very substantial new element in our consideration of the evidence. The "bent axis" interpretation of the access to Mesopotamian temples is a good example (the forced turn in the access path favoring a deflection towards the numinous). Another example into which we may delve here consists of two alternative ways of framing the entrance to monumental buildings.
     In southern Mesopotamian palaces, the doorway is de-emphasized: as one looks at the facade of the building (the focal point of a visitor approaching from a distance), the doorway appears as a panel among others in a series of recessed planes framed by buttresses. As one crosses the threshold, one is led through a series of narrow and dark corridors to a courtyard that reproposes the open space of the outdoors, but framed on all sides by the architectural volumes of the building. These are the facts of collocation. An interpretive key is to look at the focal point as perceived by a visitor who comes from the brightness of a flat outdoors, his attention focused on the building as a whole, with a subtle suggestion of where access can be found, until, having arrived in the courtyard, a new framed brightness is rediscovered.
     In northern Mesopotamia, by way of contrast, the entrance is emphasized by a portico (from in antis porches to the bit hilani scheme) on which the attention of the visitor is focused as a point of arrival almost more than as a threshold to the inside. Interpretively, this collocational reality may be understood in terms of the larger perception of the landscape, so different from the total flatness of the southern horizons, and the climate, which brings frequent rain and shorter winter days. The portico as the focal point, then, is a shelter, a point of arrival in the north as much as the inner courtyard is in the south. It is as though the dark southern corridors and the sheltered northern porticoes served as alternative decompression chambers from the outside to the inside, distinct in their function and the perception they elicited.
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Function and perception

     The distinction between collocation and perception is analogous to that between emplacement and deposition. Collocation and emplacement, on the one hand, refer to the actual configuration of elements as observed in the ground, while perception and deposition are based on inferences drawn from the observed data.
     Function takes us one step further in the inferential process: we argue as to the purpose for which something was set in place, and the use to which it was put. Thus, in the case of palace entrance, the porch-like entrance in the north may well have served the very practical function of drying and cleaning up when coming in from the rain and the mud, while the simple southern doorway followed by corridors may have catered to the urgency of leaving behind the bright and sunny outdoors and finding shelter in the welcoming shade of the cool indoors. The practical needs of function might well have been the overriding prime motive for the differentiation, and as such are found in modest private structures as well as in public buildings. Perception might well have developed subsequently, once a pattern was established that developed into an aesthetic preference as well.
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The built environment

     Two considerations are important for an appreciation of the perceptual response to architecture. First, volumes should be seen as such, i.e., as volumes, and not just as floor plans. Since what we generally have are, at best, floor plans (often incomplete), our perception of the "ruins" tends to be instinctively thwarted into a two-dimensional mode. A complete footprint serves already a useful perceptual function: by filling in missing walls and identifying doorways, it attunes us to circulation within buildings. But we must go further and recreate the perception of three-dimensional spaces that are enclosed all around, with what that means, inter alia, for the play of light and shadows. Short of a reconstruction (physically in the ground or virtually on a computer screen), we must compensate for, e.g., the loss of roofs and windows, which has of course a great incidence on the availability of light. An interesting example is found with Greek temples, which have a peristyle often well preserved, but no roof on top. As a result, we instinctively see the columns as the focal point, almost as if free-standing monuments; however, given a complete frame as provided by the roof, the space encased by columns and roof emerges as the real focal point, highlighted by the interior darkness and the bright light of the exterior
     In our own case, at Mozan, I may point at two distinct examples. (1) The abi is a deep underground chamber which was open to the sky for certain periods of time, and covered in other periods of its history. The circular side wall was not plastered, and the stones are particularly rough, producing a cave-like effect. Since we have set in place (for conservation purposes) a removable cover, one may develop an appreciation for both effects - a dark closed cave on the one hand and, on the other, a hole open to the light of the sky but from the considerable depth of an enclosed pit. (2) The walls of the service wing of the royal palace of Tupkish were not plastered, in contrast with those of the formal wing: with the roof in place, the rooms of the service wing would have been darker than those of the formal wing. Also, each of the four sectors of the service wing includes an iwan, i. e., a roofed rectangular space with one long side completely open to the north: this meant that the inside space would have had a constant northern light ideally suited for careful hand work.
     A second important consideration is that one should, as much as possible, look at structures in their relationship to contiguous structures. The state of preservation often militates against a full fruition of how an urban space may have been perceived in antiquity, but even in such cases one can plausibly extrapolate connections that at first sight may not be apparent. In Mozan, the temple staircase, framed by the revetment wall, produced the double effect of a sharp vertical barrier (the wall) and a broad ascensional path (the staircase): both were visible at the end of a wide Plaza, of which we have the southern edge, at a distance of some 50 ms from the staircase. In our excavation strategy, we are making a special effort at clearing a wide portion of the Plaza so as to provide an unobstructed view that would replicate the perception of space enjoyed by the ancients. We also know that in last century of Urkesh history, the Plaza came to be surrounded on all sides by a heavy buildup, which reduced the open space to a large depression: this helps explain why the fruition of the Plaza changed, in such a way that it was allowed to be filled in completely.
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Objects in space

     The placement of objects in space is less likely to be preserved as it was originally intended. Short of clear cases of a destruction not followed by attempts at retrieval, it is mostly the moments of abandonment and discard that cause the arrangement we find in the ground today. Additionally, we do not find perishable items such as rugs, tapestries and wooden items that would have substantially modified the appearance of interior spaces.
     Still, it is worth paying attention to cases where the arrangement of non-perishable elements suggests an intentional organization of items, one that has implications for the perceptual response this would have evoked. Take for ex maple the location of bread ovens (tannurs) and andirons, which would have served as focal points in directing the attention of people in the room. Or the rows of stones parallel to the revetment wall of the Temple Terrace, which I have called "curtain walls" (though only two or three rows high), on the assumption that they served to establish a symbolically inaccessible buffer in front of the wall itself, thus setting off the wall as the unsurmountable barrier this side of the divine world.
     Even patterns of discard may be meaningful. In the service wing of the royal Palace of Urkesh, the floor in room B1 was strewn with discarded pieces of sealings that had been broken when opening containers such as jars. These fragments are embedded in the soft accumulation that piled up gradually on the thinly plastered earthen floor. It appears additionally that the matrix of these accumulations varies in color between a buff pink and a dark grey, an alternation that correlates to the presence or absence of door sills. My interpretation is that as the accumulations rose, new doors were set in place with new door sills: following each such new installation, the room was more tightly sealed, and little or no ash could come into the room from the adjacent courtyard (hence the pink strata, resulting from the deposition of "clean" dust); as the door became less effective, more ash would instead filter into the closed space and be deposited on the ground. We may accordingly reconstruct a perception of the room as being heavily used, with such constant activity that no amount of cleaning could eliminate all discards, which would instead become firmly embedded in the ground through a process of heavy compaction.
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Perceptual geography

     Perceptual geography has been defined as the way in which factual geographical features are recomposed in the vision of the onlooker, through perceptual registers that are not only proper to a given individual, but are also explicitly transmitted within a given social group. The built environment is always a part of its wider geographical setting, and we must be mindful of this dimension as well within the purview of perceptual analysis.
     In Mozan, the landscape still reflects the situation that obtained at the time of Urkesh. Other sites in the area are not so fortunate. As a result we can include today's geographical scene in our attempt to identify appropriate points of view of the built environment which we are slowly bringing to light.
     The most apparent dimension is that of the northern highlands, which form a splendid backdrop to the city as one approaches it from the south. This applies in particular to the monumental Temple Terrace, which is indeed approached from the south through the wide open space of the Plaza. I have suggested that the triangular pattern along the face of the revetment wall of the Temple Terrace may represent an explicit ideological reference to the mountains. This would represent an intentional expression of a precise perceptual dimension. In any case, the Temple Terrace, this major monumental embodiment of religious ideology, emerges as an even more unified whole when framed against the high ridge which dominates, at not a great distance, its northern horizon
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The archaeology of perception

     Gullini Uruk Temples
Davidson et al. 1989
Dibble 1989
Wallace 1989
Margueron
Bradley 2000 Archaeology of natural Places
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Perception of taxonomical classes

     refer to both perception of classes within taxonomy
and to the concept of fragmentation and the reconstituting perception linearity
Kierkegaard, straght jacket...
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The role of virtual reality

     An important contribution of virtual reality is that it allows to project reconstructions of the built environment in precisely the sort of manner that I am advocating for perceptual analysis. An unlimited number of points of view are available, which is the ideal situation for testing alternative perspectives of the urban space. The relative ease with which one can view not only the extant evidence, but also a projected reconstructed whole, means that one can consider at one and the same time multiple possibilities.
     This is one of the major scholarly potentials of virtual reality, because it can influence very substantially the very strategy of excavation. The intellectual value of virtual reality was one of the principles that guided us since the beginning of our work, as I had the opportunity to stress in the first volume of our reports (section 9.2.1). To truly make this ideal operational, the use of three-dimensional models must become embedded in the very moment of excavation, and not remain just an extrinsic product coming long fter the close of the excavations. The Ph. D. dissertation by Federico A. Buccellati, currenlty in preparation, addresses just this problem.
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