Nature by Design Part 2

How colorful landscapes attest to cultural exchange.

Georges Hattab
Jul 30, 2019 · 11 min read

In part 1 of this series, we laid the groundwork by presenting aspects of culture, art, and cultural history. In this installment, I’ll go through the colorful landscapes that humans have fashioned and their interactions with each other.

Natural resources are necessary for settlement. Forests provide wood that has many uses. Harbors and calm waters are attractive as they provide shelter from the elements. Land that is good for farming and rivers that are filled with fresh water to irrigate them is very important to sustaining life year-round. Time, however, defines our rhythm as a species and marks when we use the space provided by our immediate environment.

Aerial view of farming land in the Azores. Maia, Portugal
Aerial view of farming land in the Azores. Maia, Portugal

Time and future

Our diurnal rhythm, of being active in the daytime, has played a decisive role in organizing our world and being productive. Calendars are an explicit scheme for timekeeping by using natural units: the day, the solar year, and the lunar month. They have determined important activities: predict the future, decide on auspicious dates for battles, marriages, harvests, and so on. Depending on the environment, calendars were either painted on cotton cloth, carved from wooden boards, limestone, or even bamboo shoots.

Calendars rely on the position of celestial bodies, particularly their cycles as observed from Earth’s surface. An example is the so-called synodic period, applying to the elapsed time where planets return to the same location. For example, the Venus synodic period is when Venus returns between its consecutive observed conjunctions with or oppositions to the Sun.

Historically, the Sumerian calendar was the earliest, followed by the Egyptian, Assyrian and Elamite calendars. The Sumerians were part of the Sumer civilization in the southern region of Mesopotamia, modern-day southern Iraq. The Sumerians were among the first astronomers, mapping the stars into sets of constellations, and identifying the five planets that are visible to the naked eye. Their calendar divided a year into 12 lunar months of 29 or 30 days, with each month starting with the sighting of a new moon. Much like the Gregorian calendar, an extra or intercalary month was added every three years or so, to keep the lunar year in step with the solar year.

Later, the Elamites were the first to make use of the Venus synodic period of 584 days in their calendar or about 1.6 years in the Gregorian calendar. This period is indicated by surviving clay tablets from Susa, in particular, the Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa. The usage of the Venus synodic period was also present for the Mayan-Aztec calendar found in stone carvings or stele.

In the ancient Canaanite city of Gezer, 32 km to the West of Jerusalem, inscribed on limestone, is the Gezer stone. It was discovered in 1908 and describes monthly and bi-monthly periods of agricultural activities such as harvesting, planting, and tending to specific crops. Line by line, it reads:

“Two months for the harvest, two months for the planting, two months for late-planting, one month to cut flat, one month for the barley-harvest, one month of harvest and festival. Two months for harvesting grapes, one month for gathering the summer fruit.”

In Indonesia, an old Batak Karo bamboo tube calendar, or Porhalaan, is scribed with 30 rows (days) and 12 vertical columns (months). It’s accompanied by written Batak scripts, which provide advice on spells and guidance on how to interpret the calendar. It has a hole on the side at one end so that it can be hung. Its dark color indicates that the tube was smoked during its final stages of production.

Tube calendar Porhalaan made out of Bamboo, animal hair, and plant fibers. Collection Albert Grubauer 1910.
LEFT: Stylized calendar displaying 35 squares (7 days by 5 weeks for the Balinese/Lombok month of 35 days) are engraved with series of crosses, lines, circles and other markings. Circa 1935. RIGHT: Wooden board displaying 210 squares (7 days by 30 weeks for a year in the Balinese Pawukon calendar of 210 days) engraved with a series of crosses and circles. Early 20th Century, Collection of Malay Heritage Center.

Time played an essential role in procuring the three basic necessities: food, shelter, and water. With time, humans prospered and surpassed other species by fashioning their environment. In some extremes, human settled around volcanoes. A prime example is the city of Pompeii in Italy, where fertile soil and ample space contributed to the city’s development. By pushing the boundaries to settle in one area or another, humans have fashioned the landscape to their needs.

Colorful landscapes

From the birth of ancient Greece to the fall of the Roman Empire, large buildings were built according to precise rules. In many cultures, architecture defined various spaces for men and women. Humans had to find their rightful place in an environment inhabited by others; which they then had to form relations with. Large communities formed and established the social hierarchies and ceremonial practices of each group.

In Africa, many peoples have different practices and spiritual traditions. Arguably, the highest point in a community or culture is shown in the dedication of its people into creating a place for the divine. In Mali, the walls of the Great Mosque are made of sun-baked earth bricks, sand, and earth-based mortar. They are coated with a plaster which gives the building its smooth, sculpted look. The walls of the building are decorated with bundles of rodier palm or Borassus aethiopum sticks, embedded in the walls. These are used for decoration and also serve as scaffolding for annual repairs.

The Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali, an icon for the sudano-sahelian architecture. Courtesy of Ruud Zwart
The Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali, an icon for the sudano-sahelian architecture. Courtesy of Ruud Zwart

In the Pacific, buildings were painted or carved with features that brought to mind the ancestral figures that founded the group’s identity. Stonewalls or elevated platforms delimited sacred or taboo places, where men communed with the gods, the spirits of the dead and those of nature.

For 4,000 years, the Thule or proto-Inuit, ancestors of all modern Inuit, expanded eastwards across Canada, reaching Greenland by the 13th century. They believed that all things have a spiritual form. Despite including animism and shamanism in their religious practices, they had a complex understanding of the world due to their constant fear of unseen natural powers exerted on their day-to-day survival. As their relationship with the land was far more harsh and complex, their world was ruled by no one, neither divine mother nor father figures. This is a reasonable explanation or hypothesis as to why they had no place for the divine.

They lived in grass huts, tents and sometimes in igloos in what is known today as Greenland. Building materials included driftwood, bones, and furs from animals that had been hunted or captured. In 1721, the arrival of Hans Egede marked the advent of a new colonial style where wooden houses in kits were sent from Scandinavia. It is then that the colorful tradition of houses with bright and characteristic colors was born. Later, building colors were indicative of function: red for commercial houses, yellow for hospitals, black for police stations, green for the telephone company, and blue for fish factories. Today, the usage of bright colors is perpetuated to also alleviate stress and depression that often peak at the winter solstice.

Greenland’s capital city, Nuuk. Getty Images. Courtesy of Stephane Godin
Greenland’s capital city, Nuuk. Getty Images. Courtesy of Stephane Godin
Greenland’s capital city, Nuuk. Getty Images. Courtesy of Stephane Godin

Encounters and interactions

Artistic expression evolved due to interactions. First, between the peoples of a community and then with travelers from other communities. For example, the peoples of the Pacific and their encounter with travelers from Europe around the 18th century. As cultures began to meet, artistic production techniques were influenced or enriched with new forms, materials, and techniques. The process of integrating and appropriating them is referred to as hybridization. In this more globalized yet increasingly divided context, artworks recount the colonial experience.

Painted tiles with the design of birds, hunting and flowers from Qajar dynasty. Museum Davids Samling
Painted tiles with the design of birds, hunting and flowers from Qajar dynasty. Museum Davids Samling
Painted tiles with the design of birds, hunting and flowers from Qajar dynasty. Museum Davids Samling

In Iran, the art from the Qajar dynasty has always held a particular fascination for the Western world. Under the Safavid Empire (1501–1736), it attracted many English, Italian, Dutch, and French travelers. Towards the end of the 18th century, a new dynasty, the Qajars, of Turkish origin, came to power (1785–1925). This period was characterized by a struggle for influence between the British, Russians, and French over control of the major trade routes to India and the Persian Gulf. This just happened to coincide with a blossoming of the arts, especially in ceramics and painting.

In Western Africa, between Gabon and Congo, the art of the Teke Tsayi is manifested in colours. The infinite variations of the sculpted geometric patterns are enhanced by very bright colours of mineral, vegetable or industrial origin. The omnipresent red refers to the world of the living. White is generally associated with spirits and the dead. Black, sometimes replaced by indigo blue, evokes political power. The principle of color dissociation is reinforced by figures, formed by simple straight or broken lines, triangles, arcs of circles, and concentric circles. These circles are opposed and answer each other in a mirror.

In Ethiopia, in Eastern Africa, mountainous massifs make the country a natural fortress. As one of the cradles of human civilization, a great kingdom developed between the 1st and 8th centuries. After its capital name, the kingdom of Axum was filled with temples and tall funerary stela. They are generally stone or wooden slabs. As King Ezana converted to Christianity in the 4th century, churches were hewn out of the rock and prayer scrolls were adopted to fight illness and demons.

Prayer scrolls were long parchments copied from the Gospel and often had colorful iconography. While the majority of the owners of such scrolls couldn’t read the texts, the contemplation of the iconography had a curative effect. The drawings depict episodes from the Old Testament, such as those relating to King Solomon, or figures and symbols emblematic of the Christian world such as the cross. Demons, angels, and historical heroes such as Alexander the great, and more abstract compositions such as Solomon’s seal are often represented on the scrolls. European evidence confirms this practice, as early as the 16th century.

In the Pacific, contact with Europeans changed everything. To a certain extent, this contact occurred within the framework of pre-existing modes of interaction, such as exchange or trade. However, the Europeans had extensive imperial ambitions and could deploy resources that had no local equivalent. Christian missionaries and settlers set out to transform the islands and their inhabitants. Their missions sought to ‘civilize’ which led to many acts of violence inflicted upon the indigenous peoples. This included land-grabbing, forced labor, sexual abuse, and the introduction of foreign diseases. Some Pacific peoples embraced these changes and joined the crews of merchant ships that travelled to Asia and Europe. These times marked both sides during the cultural exchange, nothing remained unchanged.

Cultural appropriation

Cross-cultural influence isn’t limited to cultural giants or famous artists, it permeates our connected world, now more than ever. In fact, appropriation in art is the use of pre-existing objects or images shared by one culture and using the associated meaning for purposes that are unintended by the original culture. In the same fashion, the influence of one culture on another peaks when both adopt the same technique or mindset to solve a spiritual or a corporeal problem.

Colored Mona Lisa, 1963. Andy Warhol
Colored Mona Lisa, 1963. Andy Warhol
Colored Mona Lisa, 1963. Andy Warhol

In the 1980s, Wahgi-speaking groups in the highlands of New Guinea began to produce shields again. Some are intended for sale, others for local use. Many have a hybrid iconography, combining traditional and imported motifs. Like the effigy below of The Phantom, taken from American comics and painted on a wooden war shield.

This comic strip superhero of a “man who can’t die” (who also evolved from generations of vigilantes) found particular resonance in the local culture. Some sources point that such “tribal pop art” came to be thanks to soldiers stationed in Papua New Guinea. However obscure the reasoning is, this motif testifies to the permeability of the art of the Highlands, which readily integrates motifs and elements from outside the local artistic production. Now, The Phantom comic books are among the most sought after in the world.

In the late 600’s BC, Etruscans were the most influential people in Italy. They came from Asia Minor and settled in Tuscany, north of Rome. They were the first to introduce the use of the stone arch into architecture. The Romans were influenced by the Greeks and the Etruscans and mainly wanted their art and architecture to be useful. In their footsteps, Roman builders created baths and arenas.

Thanks to the use of the arch, the Romans could build on a greater scale than the Greeks. Besides building large aqueducts with often three levels of arches piled one on top of another, halls and baths featured large open areas and heated water. The Romans developed the use of concrete around 1 BC, which in turn, enabled the construction of tall buildings. To build their open-air theaters, the Greeks had scooped out the sides of hills, using the hills to support the sloping tiers of seats. Then concrete was used to support the three gigantic tiers of the Colosseum in Rome. The prowess of fashioning the earth and changing the landscape kept Romans busy and changed the face of Italy as each city grew larger and taller.

The Towers of Bologna are a great and fascinating example of what tall looks like. In medieval Bologna, in 13th century Italy, it’s believed that over one hundred towers were built to display the rich status of Bologna while deterring potential enemy attacks. The real reason remains a mystery, however, but the human ingenuity is clear. As each tower grew higher, its structure was thinner and lighter.

Medieval Bologna. Source: Wikimedia © Toni Pecoraro, 2012
Medieval Bologna. Source: Wikimedia © Toni Pecoraro, 2012 (link)

As we have continued to exchange ways of representing and understanding our world, people on all continents have shaped their environments according to their immediate needs. The result was many monuments and architectural wonders, but not all of them have stood the test of time, such as the Pont du Gard. Built in the 1st century AD, the aqueduct continued to provide water until the 6th century. Although it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it required many renovations.

Pont du Gard
Pont du Gard (link)

I’d like to end this second part with this bridge, as it stands witness to human ingenuity, technical prowess, and artistic expression. In the next and last installment, we’re going to look at what lies beyond cultural interactions and our impact on the landscape.

Here’s the first part of the series:


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