By the Bronze Age in British Isles, and certainly in terms of the proto-historic Late Iron Age, we have what historians might call petty kings and aristocracy, sometimes with a more wider regional and national institutions. Although our museums have their weapons and treasures, architecturally, we have lost sight of the petty king in his palace and the homes of the aristocracy, always such a feature of our countryside.
But this is just the tip of an iceberg of ignorance, since we know very little of the charcoal burner in his hut, and have no real notion of cart sheds or byres; only “roundhouses”, and, thousands upon thousands of uninterpreted postholes.
It is this functional deficiency that I hope to explore in series of posts, since it represents a serious gap in our knowledge of an area fundamental to understanding any culture. One way of broadening thinking about function is to ask the question; what buildings does a moderately complex hierarchical agricultural society require?
What’s the problem with our understanding of function?
Roundhouses"."; in recent posts I have pointed out that what we have accepted as unicellular single story structure with a fire at the centre is construct not supported by the excavated evidence. This is not to say that simple round huts did not exist, but circularity of design in the ground plan is a style, not a form. The passive acceptance of this idea and the exclusivity with which it has been applied to archaeological data has been a disaster to our understanding of Prehistory.
The problems with roundhouses have arisen from reducing form to shape, and then assuming uniformity of domestic function.
While I think we can take it for granted that most people lived in house, there was a wide variety of animals, materials, processes and social activities that required a building. In this post we are going to look briefly at the building needs of farmers, in particular housing their animals and crops.
- While this is a complex issue, agriculture seems to expanded to NW Europe as a frontier, gradually clearing suitable land in the major river valley systems; what business might call “organic growth”.
- For the LBK agriculturalists that spread north and west the Neolithic revolution was something that had happened a long time ago and far away.
- In this context, the story begins with the farm buildings of these LBK agriculturalists who required a much more complex built environment than the Mesolithic populations who had moved in after the Ice Age. [above]
- This was a fully-formed functional system of architecture; it was not transitional from living in caves or tents, and is not way related to what happened previously in these areas.
- Agricultural practices and buildings had a long time to adapt to the changing conditions for growing, processing and storing products, and the increasing need to house and feed animals during the winter.
- Farming in a cold, wet, and windy climate, which reduces the growing season, light levels and available dry days, is more dependent on buildings.
- High wind, wet, and snow are particularly deleterious to buildings.
- In temperate Europe there is an abundance of hardwood, particularly oak, and also a lack of serious wood eating pests like termites, allowing the development of robust long lasting timber framed buildings.
- The remains of Neolithic buildings from European lake side sites  were buildings with wooden floors and doors, and [like crannogs], demonstrate that hearths can be used in wooden floored buildings.
- While it is perhaps possible to grasp the concept and imitate aspects of agriculture, the same is not true of a complex technology like building that resides in the minds of individuals.
- The construction of buildings, spatial ordering and other agricultural engineering were probably the most specialised skill set of the Neolithic; farmland needs only to be laid out once, and farm houses should last a lifetime, these were not every day or seasonal skills.
- While ground stone woodworking tools are diagnostic, in a world largely fabricated from wood, it was what they produced that was of significance to Neolithic craftsmen, although this is largely invisible to the archaeologist.
- An important and easily overlooked aspect of the Neolithic skill set is woodland management which allows continuous production of woodland products, including long cycle [c.40-50 years] structural building timber.
However, concentration of agricultural wealth should be represented in the nature of farm buildings, with concentrations of larger and more specialised structures, perhaps in association with non-agricultural built environments.
- Byer / Cow house
- Cart Shed
- Pig Stye
- Farm House
- Drinking water
- Low ceiling
- Door only slightly wider than human.
- Stalls or method securing the cattle in position
- Mangers for feed/ hay
- Straw on the floor
- Access to stores of hay straw and feed
- Drains from the building
- About the size of a garage
- Wide and tall double doors
- Tall spaces
- Doors open outward into a yard/ space
- Near the oxen/horses
Although the term is wisely misused, a barn is a building for processing cereals and the storage of products. Once harvested, cereals have to be threshed to detach the grain from stalks [straw], and then winnowed to separate it from the lighter chaff. Typically, threshing was done with a flail on a special [threshing] floor and winnowing by tossing the grain in a draught using a basket, both activities are best done in a lofty space.
So the characteristics of a barn are generally:
- Tall space
- Wide Door/s for wagon access
- Through Draught
- Threshing Floor
- Space for storage of the unthreshed grain / straw
Traditionally’ granaries are raised off the ground or on a second floor, which also helps secure them against vermin, and keeps the grain away from the ground.
Grain has to dried before it can be stored, or it might rot or sprout; so spaces are required for processing and storage have to be dry. In addition, Grain is transported by wagon and is stored in sacks, in bins or loose, so the ergonomics are also served by a floor raised to the height of a cart or wagon floor. Grain was a valuable commodity.
The "four-Post" granary, is one form of archaeological structure where function is apparently understood, and are another legacy of Bersu's Little Woodbury Excavation . I have sugested a cantilever design based on the evidence from the LIA site at Orsett, .
I have always felt grain storage pits/silos, that are found in the Iron Age, are a feature of chalk as they not become waterlogged, but have only one great advantage over a granary, - they can be hidden.
As already noted horses were not best suited to heavy work and more obviously adapted to speed. They are relatively high value animals, and represent a significant investment in time and training. Unlike domestic cattle which are relatively docile, horses are more spirited and can panic and hurt themselves. Ponies and horses vary in hardiness, and size, which effects how they are housed, but working animals are kept in doors for convenience, where they can be fed and kept dry particularly in winter. Horses are notably associated with chariots; both were items of prestige and status, which also need suitable housing. Stables tend to be/have:
- Relatively lofty open space
- Water supply
- Slightly wider/ taller door
- Individual Stalls / loose box format.
- Access to stores of hay straw and feed
Birds like Hens, Ducks, and Geese are kept for their eggs and meat, they should be housed or enclosed, [at least night], to protect them and for convenience of collecting eggs. The design of the Henhouse is conditioned by the hen’s preference for roosting off the ground, and any attached run by the need to protect them from predation. The traditional pig style is a low building with an attached pen, troughs and water supply.
Individual animals of any kind may require separating, perhaps when sick, and putting into a loose box, a flexible space to accommodate such eventualities.
What becomes of the agricultural products for human consumption, the spaces needed for processing, storage and consumption relates to a different set of buildings that cater for the diverse needs of people is a separate topic.
I have covered a range of theoretical buildings, any one of which would be a PhD research project in its own right, since in terms of British Prehistory you would be starting from ground zero. Such buildings are rarely alluded to in reports and they would have to be sought in the detail of excavation data. A methodology of reverse engineering structures from excavated data is only way conceivable way of developing a more nuanced understanding of both form and function in prehistoric build environments. However, for farmers, it is often the shared connective space, the yard/s, rather than the buildings that is often the focus of activity. For archaeology, the postholes and other features are the focus, but it is the nature of the spaces they define that is the key to understanding function, and it is their relationship to open areas that often gives context to farm buildings.
PJR Modderman (1975): 'Elsloo, a Neolithic farming community in the Netherlands,' in Bruce-Mitford, R L S, Recent archaeological excavations in Europe, Chapter IX.
PJR Modderman (1985), D'ie Bandkeramik im Graetheidegebiet, Niederländisch-Limburg.' Berichte der Römisch- Germanischen Kommission, 66:25-121
and their conservation
G. Guilbert1 (1981): "Double-ring roundhouses, probable and possible," in Prehistoric Britain Proc Prehist Soc 47 &. G. Guilbert (1982): 'Post-ring symmetry in Roundhouses at Moel y Gaer and some other sites in prehistoric Britain', in Structural Reconstruction - Approaches to the interpretation of the excavated remains of buildings; British Archaeological Report 110, BAR, 67-86
S. C. Hawkes (1994): "Longbridge Deverill Cow Down, Wiltshire, House 3: A Major Round House of the Early Iron Age." Oxford Journ. Archaeol. 13(1), 49-69
G. A. Carter (1998): 'Excavations at the Orsett ‘Cock’ enclosure, Essex, 1976'. East Anglian Archaeology Report No 86
 G. Bersu: 1940: Excavations at Little Woodbury, Wiltshire. Part 1, the settlement revealed by excavation. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 6, 30 -111