OIKOS (not the yogurt!) [December 2018]

As part of the House Poetics project we wanted to have the opportunity to discuss ideas about House societies with colleagues working on similar questions. The Aegis Research Group at UCLouvain has established an exciting tradition of annual conferences on topics of Aegean archaeology (see their impressive catalogue of publications here). So with the help of the wonderful MSCA funding and other sponsors from Belgium and USA, we put on a feast of Houses during December 2018. Here’s a round up of the proceedings.

Background and rationale of the workshop

The research of the social organisation of prehistoric Aegean societies has been dominated by questions concerning the type and size of the basic social units. Attempts to answer such questions have explored a wide variety of fields, from architecture, to the organisation of economic activity and the production and consumption of material culture, to the analysis of kinship structures, with mixed results. The key stumbling block in these attempts was not so much that no single theoretical model could adequately describe the variability of evidence on the ground, but more importantly, that no existing approach could successfully capture activities, identities and social formations at the interstices of the more easily recognisable small- and large-scale units.

Some years ago, Levi-Strauss’s theory of House Societies gained popularity in archaeology and anthropology by virtue of its innovative understanding of collective action which offered alternative ways for approaching and analysing the organisation of ancient societies. Lévi-Strauss’s (1982: 174) definition of the House as “a moral person holding an estate made up of material and immaterial wealth which perpetuates itself through the transmission of its name, its fortune and its titles down a real or imaginary line, considered legitimate as long as this continuity can express itself in the language of kinship or of affinity, and most often of both” provided the opportunity for subsequent analyses to combine the examination of Houses as both physical and social structures, which operated beyond and in between the levels of the individual (small-scale unit) and the state (large-scale collective structure) (e.g. Carsten and Hugh-Jones 1995; Joyce and Gillespie 2000; Driessen 2010). However, while the flexibility and enormous diversity embodied in the House constitute clear advantages in our attempts to construct more accurate interpretations of ancient social organisation, a lot of the model’s features require greater critical scrutiny if Houses are not to be employed as just another static social typology.

Thus, the workshop proposed to approach Houses as heuristic devices for exploring social relations and modelling social interactions in the past, viewing the House society model as an inherently flexible set of structuring principlescapturing relations, behaviours and patterns that subvert traditional categories of social interaction. The model’s many facets of material, social and political expression (for example, combining hierarchical and heterarchical structures; being focused on collective representation whilst allowing for the emergence of individual identities; deploying architectural elaboration as both a method of unification and differentiation), were well suited to the patterns and process of ancient Aegean societies which were worth exploring further.

Major themes emerging during the conference

Definitions/terminology. A key theme emerging from the outset of the discussions in the conference was the need for an adequate definition of the House and what distinguishes it from other similar terms, such as ‘’household”, “domestic or residential group” and so on. The definition provided by Levi-Strauss formed a central part of these considerations, but it quickly proved to be restricting new insights rather than enabling more effective interpretations of our data. The more different papers tried to identify Houses by ticking a check-list of criteria, the more elusive they became. This brought to the fore the opening contention of the conference rationale, that, as Gillespie (2007: 38) also argued, the House as a way of thinking about social interaction is more useful when scholars are not interested in typologies “but in social processes and practices, particularly processes and practices across variously organized societies and processes and practices that transform societies over time”.

Temporality/fluidity: This temporal element of Houses formed another major theme in the conference discussion. The emergence, dominance and eventual dissolution of House practices through time was the focus of several presentations, and the prominence of chronological depth and inter-generational structures throughout the Bronze Age was analysed through various material, ritual and social perspectives. Of particular interest were approaches focusing on architecture that emphasized the strong interplay between enduring structures rebuilt in the same locations and residential fluidity which, nevertheless, made reference to inter-generational construction and use of space.

Materiality, production and consumption. This was a very important aspect of how the theoretical premises of the House society model could be seen in action. Production and consumption patterns occupy a central role in most archaeological narratives of the past, perhaps because their material residue is more easily discoverable than other kinds of social practices, but more importantly because they offer the opportunity to analyse patterns and processes of organisation more closely, and therefore involve all different levels and scales of social action. New evidence from across the Aegean was examined from the perspectives of resource management, labour organisation, the allocation of rights and obligations, as well as through practices of sharing and collective consumption, within habitational or ritual and funerary contexts, to illustrate the multitude of ways in which a House structure might have been operationalised at different times and places.

Scalar and social dimensions. Linked to the previous theme, and underpinning the broader discussion throughout the conference, were issues of scale, in both its physical/material and social dimension:  the size of Houses, the criteria for their membership and the extent of their social and political reach were recurring themes in this discussion. Here explicit cautions against objectifying the House as a discrete social typology to be ‘discovered’ or not in the archaeological record need to be heeded seriously. However, what emerged as a general conclusion out of the analysis of an astonishing depth and breadth of social interaction across the prehistoric Aegean, was a sense of a deep-rooted ontology of collective action expressed through enduring social behaviours that withstood drastic political changes.

On the whole, the research presented at the conference offered a fresh and stimulating perspective on the usefulness of the House as a social model fitting to the Aegean context. As Levi-Strauss developed these ideas on the basis of specific anthropological evidence, discussions at the conference emphasised the need to evaluate the ideas and theories of Houses with close reference to each specific context under consideration. At the same time though, the persistence of recurrent and enduring collective behaviours with differential modes of affinity at their centre emerged as an overarching theme that merits further analysis.

We explore these themes in more detail in the forthcoming publication of the conference (to appear in 2020).



Carsten, J., & Hugh-Jones, S. (1995). About the House : Lévi-Strauss and beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Driessen, J. (2010). Spirit of Place: Minoan Houses as Major Actors. In D. J. Pullen (Ed.), Political Economies of the Aegean Bronze Age (pp. 35-65). Oxford: Oxbow books.

Gillespie, S. D. (2007). When is a House? . In A. Beck Robin (Ed.), The Durable House. House Society Models in Archaeology (pp. 25-50). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University.

Joyce, R. A., & Gillespie, S. D. (2000). Beyond kinship : social and material reproduction in house societies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1982). The way of the masks. Seattle: University of Washington Press.