Living in Round Houses

Roundhouses, a very successful architectural form, were for thousands of years the commoner type of building in Britain, more so than the Continental style, the longhouse which was adopted in the early centuries of the first millennium AD.

We have to guess a great deal about their structure and appearance. Wood and thatch decay, so the size and shape of the structures are deduced from postholes found at excavation, and from reconstructions, notably at Butser Farm in Hampshire

 

roundhouse

 

For a step-by-step guide to building one, see http://www.bodrifty.co.uk/BuildingRoundhouse.htm
or the BBC website www.bbc.co.uk/history/lj/archaeologylj/crannog_entry.shtm

You will have to call on friends and neighbours for help in building yours, as doubtless did our farmers at Boonies.

 

The walls of roundhouses were made of wattle (woven thin branches) and daub (clay) or sometimes stone.

The roof was conical with thatching of rushes or straw (or possibly heather?) on a framework of thin trunks and branches lashed together. Postholes to suggest a central roof-support are rare, which leaves us still asking exactly how the roof was built and supported.

Reconstructive experimental archaeology suggests that the slope of the roof would be about 45°. A greater angle was a waste of effort and resulted in unusable roof space, while a flatter angle led to increased leaks and drips, as rain and snow would not be properly shed.

The doorway usually faced more or less south, to catch the morning sun.

 

Depending on the weather, probably a lot of work demanding good light - weaving, food preparation - was done in the open air rather than in the relative dark of the house.

 

roundhouse

 

The hearth was in a circle of large stones in the centre of the floor area. Embers were kept smouldering most of the time, and blown or fanned into a good fire when required.

There was no chimney and probably no smoke-hole - experiences with reconstructed roundhouses suggests that a smoke-hole encouraged too much of a draught and hence a risk of the thatch catching fire. Other effects of this arrangement included red eyes, a general smoky smell to your hair and clothes - which you probably wouldn't notice after a while - and the roof being 'sterilized' by tarry deposits. This discouraged microbial growth, which might otherwise have more readily rotted the thatch and supporting woodwork.

Inside would be dark, apart from light coming from the doorway, the fire and tallow lamps. The atmosphere would be at times cosy, at times fuggy. The floor would be strewn with rushes or bracken. Animal skins or blankets would be used for greater comfort, and to give some scant privacy.

Why would old roundhouses cease to be used and new ones be built? Fire would be a regular cause of rebuilding, as would roof collapse from the inevitable decay of the wooden framework.

Population growth in the last two or so centuries BC would perhaps cause a property boom.

Similar buildings in Canada (First Nation lodges) lasted for up to 70 years.