The ceremonial houses of the Abelam people (East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea) rank as architectural masterpieces. The impressive buildings, built on a triangular ground plan, often reached heights of up to 30 metres, towering above even the tallest coconut palms. One of their hallmarks was the richly painted façade. They were constructed completely without nails, all elements being held together with the aid of vines and liana ropes; they were built by communal labour and refl ected the strength of the respective community. Outside the ceremonial cycle they served as repositories for sacred carvings but during initiations they became the place of stupendous ritual installations. The novices entered the house through a low, tunnel-like entrance before they were confronted with dramatically staged cult images inside. Following this revelation they were led out through a narrow exit at the back on to small, hidden ceremonial ground where they remained in seclusion for several weeks.
This book offers a unique documentation of the architecture of the different styles of ceremonial houses according to region, their mode of construction and the impressive facade paintings. It goes on to explain the social networks responsible for the construction and maintenance of such ceremonial houses; a crucial agent of social formation. The integrative and consolidating force that emanated from a ceremonial house and the ritual arena associated with it, not only shaped social life in the village but also defi ned the communion between humans, clan ancestors and mythical creative forces.
Up to the late 1980s, knowledge concerning the construction and meaning of ceremonial houses was passed on to the next generation by means of oral transmission. However, since then the Abelam have converted to Christianity and turned their backs on traditional belief and knowledge: they no longer build ceremonial houses, initiations are a matter of the past, and pigs, domesticated as well as semi-wild, which used to be focal to religious life in earlier days have been discarded. All this has changed the face of Abelam culture radically and the knowledge concerning the construction of ceremonial houses is now all but lost.
The author presents an extensive description and analysis of Abelam society at a time when the people were still building ceremonial houses, staging initiations and sacrifi cing pigs. The magnifi cent edifi ces constituted the spatial, social and religious pivot of Abelam culture. This work presents a cultural record of what on longer exists. An essential book for all architects and anthropologists interested.
Author Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin is Professor of Anthropology, University of Göttingen (Germany). She has been visiting professor at Columbia University, The New School for Social Research, Dartmouth College and L’ École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris. She has carried out extensive fieldwork among the Iatmul and Abelam peoples in Papua New Guinea (between 1972 and 1983) and in Bali, Indonesia (since 1988). Many of her publications focus on the ritual organization of space.
Published by Crawford House
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