27 October, 2008

8. Who would live in a house like this?

Since roundhouses were first defined 60 years ago, a consensus has emerged as to how these buildings were built, and how they should look. Physical reconstructions have become quite common. Since prehistoric post-built roundhouses never survive above floor level at best, on what are these reconstructions based?

Visualising the past: Which is which? Roundhouse or African mud hut?

Gerhard Bersu’s identification of the main roundhouse at Little Woodbury was accompanied by a reconstruction in plan and section.[1] He identified the outer ring of postholes as marking the wall and the inner ring as supporting a conical roof at 45 deg. The building was entered via a pitched-roofed porch. (A central set of posts was envisaged as providing a small clear storey, but these features are unique to Little Woodbury, and are now ignored.) This reconstruction, published in 1940, finally put paid to any primitive notions that people in Pre-Roman Britain had no significant built environment. Constructed with about 50 large posts and 15.2m /50ft in diameter, the main roundhouse was far too substantial to be described as a hut. The building had a floor area of about 150m2 /1600 sq ft, in contemporary terms roughly the same as a modest three bedroom house.

Gerhard Bersu’s Little Woodbury reconstruction (1940) [1]
The Little Woodbury roundhouse, like many of the buildings of this type, dates from the Iron Age, which started around 600BC, and ‘ended’ with the arrival of the Romans. It was recognised as a timber frame building with a thatched roof, and could have been viewed as a predecessor of the local vernacular timber frame tradition, but its circularity seemed somehow alien to our rectilinear building culture. It was tempting to view this building in terms of other circular building traditions, such as those from parts of Africa.

The 1944 Little Woodbury Reconstruction [2]
The earliest reconstruction of the Little Woodbury house was built for the documentary 'The Beginning of History', made by the Crown Film Unit in 1944.[2] It was clearly nearer to a ‘mud hut’ than a timber frame building. As the most familiar visual model, the extent to which African circular buildings influenced this and subsequent reconstructions is difficult to tell, but the finished products appear similar.
Why buildings produced by unrelated cultures, for a different environment, and with different raw materials, should be regarded as potential models, has never been clear, but presumably this derives from regarding shape as the defining characteristic of a building. We have already noted the importance of circles and circularity as a template used to identify and define the built environment, to the virtual exclusion of other shapes.

The next important milestone in this story was the reconstruction of a roundhouse form at Pimperne Down in Dorset.[3] Like Little Woodbury, the site had two roundhouses that had been superimposed, and each had two rings of features and an entrance porch. Here the outer ring was mostly composed of stakeholes, features left by pointed timbers driven into the ground.

The late Peter Reynolds, one of the original excavators, rebuilt the Pimperne Down house as a part of wider program of ‘experimental archaeology’ at the Butser Iron Age Farm in Hampshire.[4] Experimental archaeology studies the processes and technologies of the past by reproducing them on the basis of archaeological evidence. The Butser Iron Age Farm in Hampshire was conceived to test ideas about farming and other aspects of the technology of prehistory .

The excavated features at Pimperne Down, seen from above
The 'Great House', as it became known, was regarded as a ‘construct’ by Peter Reynolds, designed to test the basic model of a circular building with a conical thatched roof structure and a porch. Reynolds followed the basic model suggested by Bersu and added insights gained from other excavations. In testing the basic design, important insights were gained into the building process, the materials used, and the structural understanding implicit in the plan. It proved the technical viability of roofing a wide building (about 13m / 42.5ft), using the simplest technology, and proved the basic model of a roundhouse.

The Great House at Butser (1976)
A basic ethos involving the use of simple technology and minimal resources underlay the reconstruction. This derived from a need for objectivity and not going too far beyond the evidence, both required to make experimental archaeology academically valid. Some insight into the thinking behind the Great House can be seen in the reasoning behind the choice of the roof pitch. This was set at 45 degrees for a variety of reasons including:
  • Simple angle to calculate;
  • Simple to construct;
  • Produces a balanced roof;
  • Used in Africa;
  • Minimum angle for thatch;
  • Uses the minimum amount of materials.
The last item is not unimportant in terms of Reynolds' experiment, because in purchasing several hundred trees, and in thatching a sizable building, compromises had to be made because resources were limited.
The Great House was conceived as a ‘construct’ to test the basic interpretation of archaeological plans of roundhouses originally proposed by Bersu, and in those terms, it was fairly successful. The building had no decoration, minimal fixtures and fittings, and no internal structure, because there was no direct evidence of that sort, and Reynolds was testing the evidence. It is in some ways unfortunate that Reynolds' structure became an archetype for many of the subsequent reconstructions.

Creating a simple visual context for prehistory (Torquay Museum) [4]
The simple model of round houses has, at times, been simplified even further, with experiments at Flag Fen with turf roofs.[5] One of the latest reconstructions is of Little Woodbury; its basic structural conception is the same as Bersu’s reconstruction of 1940. The fact that some reconstructions have become unstable, or have been damaged by the wind, has not prompted any questioning of the basic design.
The partly-built reconstruction of Bersu's Little Woodbury at Butser (2008) [6]
The perpetual problem of funding in any form of archaeology has led to a blurring between experimentation and entertainment, albeit educational. We can now see real ‘Iron Age buildings’, and this very ‘simple’ form of building has crept almost unconsciously, and unquestioned, into our visual consciousness.
The roundhouse of almost universal conception is a building with an open circular space with a conical roof open to the rafters and a hearth at its centre.
However, the roundhouse as currently conceived is not a functional building; it has all the utility of a rustic gazebo, and was in part inspired, on the basis of shape, by buildings built by cultures far away in a different climate and with different raw materials. Whether the roundhouses built by archaeologists are conceived as ‘constructs’ or ‘reconstructions’ is no longer important; like early pioneers' of film making establishing the visual conventions of their medium, Peter Reynolds’ experimental construct has become the accepted appearance and form of the roundhouse.

Mike Parker Pearson’s scheme of actual and symbolic time in a roundhouse: A: Daily time. B: Seasonal time. C: Lifetime. D: Ancestral time combined with seniority [7]The acceptance of this standard model is implicit in Professor Mike Parker Pearson’s widely disseminated theory of how the open space of the roundhouse was organised and conceived in terms of time.[7] It is based on the idea that the only available light in the open interior, with its central hearth, came from the easterly-facing the door. Regardless of how we regard the essential veracity of the idea, it could only ever be true of structures conforming to a very simple model of roundhouses.

However, the tradition of timber building was already several thousands of years old by the time these buildings were originally built, a period during which all other technologies had changed out of all recognition. The idea that building technology would have remained ‘simple’ during a period that saw the transition in cutting tools from stone, through bronze, to iron, is illogical, especially given the importance of the built environment to any sedentary agricultural culture living in our climate.

These may be the first buildings built by archaeologists, and the presumption of simplicity was important to the experimental context, but they were not the first buildings built in prehistory, and prehistoric builders may not have felt the same need for restraint in terms of technology or materials.
References & Sources:
[1] G. Bersu (1940), 'Excavations at Little Woodbury, Wiltshire. Part 1, the settlement revealed by excavation'. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 6, pp. 30-111.
[2] [Accessed 27 October 2008] http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/469778/
[3] [Accessed 27 October 2008] http://www.butser.org.uk/index.html
[4] [Accessed 27 October 2008] http://www.torquaymuseum.org/
[5] [Accessed 27 October 2008] http://www.flagfen.com/
[6] [Accessed 27 October 2008] http://www.gallica.co.uk/butser/rebuild.htm
[7] M. Parker Pearson (1999), 'Food, Sex and Death: Cosmologies in the British Iron age with Particular Reference to East Yorkshire'. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 1999 (a) 9:1, pp. 43-69.