Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.01.52 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.01.52

Eleftheria Paliou, Undine Lieberwirth, Silvia Polla (ed.), Spatial Analysis and Social Spaces: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Interpretation of Prehistoric and Historic Built Environments. Topoi, 18.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2014.  Pp. viii, 320.  ISBN 9783110265941.  $112.00.  

Reviewed by Mary Hollinshead, University of Rhode Island (

Full Text (open access)

This volume of ten papers presents analytical modes of studying human experience in the built environment, emphasizing new developments in computer-based methodology. The book results from a 2010 conference, “Spatial Analysis in Past Built Spaces,” held in Berlin. The goal is to enrich our understanding of human interaction with structures and spaces (on scales from individual to societal) by including in its study visibility, movement, and accessibility as described by computational techniques.

Most of the papers are based on Space Syntax, the methodology promulgated by Hillier and Hanson in their 1984 book, The Social Logic of Space, founded on the concept that human activity is profoundly affected by the arrangement of buildings and spaces.1 Space Syntax, encompassing access analysis, axial analysis, and visibility analysis, expresses spatial relationships in highly analytical terms, both graphic and algebraic. Although only a few Classical archaeologists have embraced Hillier’s model, perhaps owing to a skepticism about theory in general, perhaps because it seemed unduly reductionist, the value of analytical and computational study of ancient sites has gained greater acceptance. Many scholars have welcomed computer-generated reconstructions of structures and sites, and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) has become an essential tool of survey work. This book offers opportunities to see analytical methodologies in action, applied to specific archaeological sites. In addition, new techniques open up possibilities of reconstructing increasingly complex aspects of human behavior. With curiosity and patience, the reader without extensive experience in computational processes will gain important insight into patterns of use at ancient sites and tools for interpretation that merit more attention.

Because Hillier and Hanson enunciated a specialized vocabulary for their practices, and because software programs have their own sets of common phrases, terminology can be a deterrent. However, nearly every author who uses this same specialized vocabulary is careful to explain it, so that the reader can navigate the jargon—but diligence is required. Those familiar with DepthMap and GIS (specifically ArcGIS) will find discussions of methodology more accessible, but every chapter here offers content of value to archaeologists. Paliou’s clear, well-written Introduction is a fine guide to the contributions and to the varied computer-based analyses of ancient sites.

The first paper, by Hillier himself, explains Space Syntax and brings it up to date. Starting from the premise that there is a dynamic interaction between space and social relations, Hillier assesses how the configuration of space affects human cognition, summarizing the empirical experience of “inter-visibility” in a mathematical formula. Applying his “spatial laws” to urban sites, Hillier uses DepthMap software to examine patterns of behavior at the societal level, acknowledging the agency of human participants, but focusing on quantifiable information.

Using Hillier’s methods as a starting point, contributors to this volume aspire to maximize understanding of human interaction with the built environment in antiquity on multiple scales. They evaluate visuality and intervisibility, now including three-dimensional views and lighting effects so as to project patterns of use for individuals, and more broadly, of function and interaction at societal levels. Most authors acknowledge the importance of integrating their methods with social theory and contextual archaeological information, and many incorporate all to some degree in their papers.

In the second paper, Letesson applies Hillier’s methods to Minoan architecture, observing a diachronic change from vernacular structures to more intentionally designed architecture, and from individual invention to more widespread societal innovation. He documents the transition from Prepalatial and Protopalatial agglutinative spaces to Neopalatial articulated configurations organized around a central court, finding key traces of this process at Building A of Quartier Mu at Malia, an unusually well preserved site. This article demonstrates the value of integrating analysis of spaces and of the configuration of structures with archaeological data. Letesson argues convincingly that changes in physical manifestations of Neopalatial Minoan culture (such as architecture) suggest incremental development in Crete, and continuity with earlier phases on the island.

Paliou expands the study of visibility in the built environment to include three dimensional analysis, the vertical aspects of structures. Most effectively, she employs computational 3D analysis to reconstruct spatial and viewing experiences at Akrotiri, Thera, noting that inhabitants may have been able to see interior wall paintings from streets outside the buildings, views made possible by open “squares” in the network of streets. She also applies these methods to evaluate the visual experience of women in the gallery of the sixth-century church of San Vitale at Ravenna. Incorporating not only the vertical dimension, but the treatment of materials and surfaces as well, Paliou’s contribution makes clear how new techniques can literally provide new perspectives to the interpretation of well known, well documented sites.

Visibility is central to Wheatley’s valuable contribution. He notes the comparable methodological and theoretical foundations of Space Syntax with its “isovists,” and of GIS-based analysis, with its “viewsheds,” and discusses the differing critical reception of each. Wheatley refutes criticisms of maps, GIS-based applications, and the pre-eminence of visuality over sensory and somatic experience in spatial research. He then proposes linking Spatial Syntax and landscape-scale spatial analysis by incorporating more social gradations of distance, using E.T. Hall’s proxemics and Higuchi’s zones based on human perception so as to find a convergence of scales for these closely related modes of research. 2

Like Letesson, Papadopoulos and Earl base their study on Minoan structures (a house, a workshop, and a burial structure) and like Paliou, they treat three dimensional analysis and visibility. Assuming the importance of visual perception, they take as their subject light and the effects of illumination on the functions of constructed spaces. Using both natural and “flame light,” they propose new, revised interpretations for the use of a burial structure at Phourni and an installation for ceramics at Zominthos, and they reconstruct lighting in the living spaces of the North House at Kommos. To obtain the most reliable record of such an intangible but crucial component of human behavior as illumination, they advocate combining physical reconstruction and experimental archaeology with computerized simulation. Like Wheatley, Papadopoulos and Earl seek to find linkage between computer graphics and GIS-based approaches; like Paliou, they seek to analyze all surfaces visible in three dimensional environments, with “texture viewsheds” (derived from computer games) that integrate the visual experience of three dimensional forms with patterns of light.

Fisher’s subject is also related to the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean, as he compares buildings at two sites on Cyprus, Kalavasos-Ayios Dimitrios (Building X) and Alassa-Paliotaverna (Building II). Citing the interaction between people as agents and buildings as agents, he contrasts the “biographies” of two structures of similar form, combining practice theory with access analysis so as to explain how buildings express meaning. Fisher emphasizes that structures of similar design and monumentality nevertheless may have different functions and social roles. Using Hillier’s terminology, he concludes that, even though they share a genotype, the two buildings represent different phenotypes, or particular expressions of an underlying form.

The challenging paper by Hacigüzeller and Thaler seeks to compare and evaluate analytical methods. They propose “GIS-based metric integration analysis” as an advance over its progenitor, Space Syntax analysis, using case studies at Malia, Building A, Quartier Mu (like Letesson) and the Mycenaean palace at Pylos. Their detailed technical explication makes this the most difficult chapter for the non-expert reader. The challenge of specialized terminology couched in dense prose is intensified by quantities of plans without labels, requiring constant flipping back to the plans with numbered rooms. There are useful insights, such as changes projected for routes of access to the throne room at Pylos, but much of this article requires deep familiarity with methods of spatial computing.

Bintliff’s approach differs from the other papers in that his survey of house design at sites in the Aegean proceeds from socio-political information to physical evidence of domestic structures that he adduces to support his stated interpretation. His discussion of access analysis would benefit from a more consistent pairing of the access diagrams with the plans whose patterns they express.

Moving to studies based in Italy, van Nes uses Space Syntax to discern the liveliness of street life in Roman Pompeii. She uses components of Hillier’s methods, such as access and angular analysis, to describe spaces within private buildings (micro scale) and the relationship of buildings to streets (macro scale) so as to measure the activity of street life. Assessing the density of entrances and the “intervisibility” of a streetscape, together with contextual archaeological information, she adds predicted patterns of human use to the known network of streets at Pompeii, and to areas yet to be excavated. Although she is not an archaeologist, one would nevertheless expect a more complete history of the site’s layout, since the street grid instituted in 80 BCE is so striking. (The major north-south artery is the cardo, not the cardus.)

The final paper by Stöger concentrates on movement and interaction in a single city block (insula IV ii) of Roman Ostia, using Space Syntax to analyze topological and visual patterns. Considering the insula as a single spatial entity, she reconstructs social patterns in an effective combination of streets and courtyards that promote social interaction over the long occupation of the neighborhood. She emphasizes that the advantage of Space Syntax is its premise that buildings, singly or in groups, are best understood as configurations of space.

All of the ancient sites examined here are preserved to an unusual degree, a necessary condition for analyses dependent on a comprehensive set of data. The examples cited are either individual buildings with records of rooms and contents, self-contained units such as neighborhoods, or urban centers with a dense concentration of buildings and streets. Such well-defined environments with ample documentation are primarily urban, and not so common as to allow us to foresee widespread use of the techniques described here for most ancient sites, where configuration is less predictable and datasets are less complete. On the other hand, these studies are forward-looking essays about future prospects, as well as present practice, and there is much to learn here.

The book is attractive and well laid out. All but two of the papers are preceded by abstracts; adding them to the remaining two would have provided consistency. Moreover, allowing slashes between words of equivalent or alternative meaning diminishes the precision of any writing, and should be discouraged. These are minor concerns. Spatial Analysis and Social Spaces represents the method and theory of the 1980s revisited in the next generation with the benefit of advances in software that promise even more information and insights in the future. This book offers up-to-date methods of assessing how humans experience both spaces and structures, and perspectives on what those experiences mean. ​


1.   Hillier, B., and Hanson, J. 1984. The Social Logic of Space, Cambridge.
2.   Hall, E.T. 1966, The Hidden Dimension New York, NY; Higuchi, T. 1988, The Visual and Spatial Structure of Landscape, Cambridge, MA.

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