27 February, 2013

Understanding the Neolithic Longhouse

Archaeology is recorded in diagrams
All pictures of a Neolithic Longhouse are imaginary; generally, all that remains are the archaeological plans of their foundations, however, it is possible to produce a theoretical model of the form of engineering that fits the nature of this data.
Prior to the advent of digital recording systems large amounts of information were routinely recorded by visual representation in the form of hand drawn plans and sections.  Structural archaeology takes these diagrams and extends them into a ‘theoretical’ three dimensional space; in some respects these models are as accurate as the original plan.
Theoretical structural archaeology is theoretical because it based on measurements and ideas that can be expressed as diagrams and models which are the best fit for an imperfect data set.  This fit tends to improve with further study and this article represents an updating of my previous articles.
In these I considered the general background of LBK colonisation of NW Europe. More specially, the issue of building with tapering tree trunks, the importance of ground stone chisels in cutting mortise joints, and the general structural principles of this type of building were discussed with reference to building 32 at Elsloo. [1]

Theoretical Model; Elsloo Neolithic Longhouse 

  • The pitch roof is shown as a 3:4:5 triangle, this being a minimum practical angle for a thatch roof.
  • The load baring structure of the building is founded on posts sunk in the ground, which below ground at least are in the round.
  • The centre of the pitched roof is marked by the deepest postsholes that support a Ridge Piece; since this line is offset from the theoretical centre, the presence of a Collar is presumed.
  • Parallel to the ridge are the posts with ties supporting an Arcade positioned midway between the centre and the edge of the roof.
  • The lowest support from the roof comes from a Roof Plate supported on Ties.
  • The Arcade Plate and Ridge Pieces, while indirectly supported by posts at their ends can be supported by Queen Posts and King Post respectively from the Ties in the middle of the building.
  • Among the Posts on either side forming what is nominally the wall, the shallowest are taken to resent support for a Secondary Frame/s.
  • The Secondary Frame has its own posts ties and longitudinal timbers that support the floors and increase the rigidity of the frame, and the shallowest postholes within the interior relate to lower frames.

  • The pitched roof is formed by Rafter Pairs, joined at the apex above the Ridge Piece, supported in the middle of their span by an Arcade Plate, and carried at the base of a Roof Plate, which in turn is supported on Ties morticed to the head of the posts.
  • To simplify this key junction, [Post / Tie / Wall Plate / Rafter], the components are offset, forming 3 separate joints; the opposing rafters sit on either side of the Post and Tie, the latter, morticed to Posts run at a slight angle across the base of the roof.
  • In addition there is provision in the layout for Braces at 45° and 60° which together with Ties can trap the posts in increase the rigidity of the building.

  • Depending on the size of the bays, it is possible that in addition to the primary frame, there could be two or even three separate frames in parts of some longhouses.
  • The lower frame can replicate portions of the roof allowing for Rafter Pairs to be supported below the main roof, so that it becomes practical to create a lower roof below a clerestory or window

The utilisation of space within the building is principally a matter for other lines of archaeological evidence, which in turn have to be viewed as deriving from the occupation of a floored structure. From an architectural perspective, and presuming these building are farmhouses, my general view is as follows.

  • In plan structure is divided into three principle spaces separated by cross passages, creating by the overlapping of three separate structural units.
  • These probably mark the position of entrances; [a presumed entrance on the SE is sometimes illustrated].
  • The square SE section contains the stairs, and serves as the entrance to the domestic portion of the house.
  • The central space seems the best location for a byre, with principle living quarters on the floors above; this implies a low ceiling space on ground floor. 
  • The stave built section at the rear of the building is the coolest and most secure space, and presumably housed the important products and processes of the farm.
  • The general proportion based on the width of the roof, are not necessarily metrically significant, and are to illustrate the architectural approach.
Matters arising
Just to be certain the implications of this analysis are understood, I should make the following general points.
  • People do not emerge from woods, caves, or the Mesolithic to start building timber frame longhouses.
  • This engineering is a technology brought into an area by individuals as part of a wider a well-established farming culture.
  • From the LBK  onwards, Northern European mixed agriculture is based around the use of timber buildings to house the stock, produce and processes. 
  • Rooms, doors, windows, floors and stairs do not have to be ‘invented’; but they do have to be engineered.
  • The archaeological data can produce an understanding of the engineering of the buildings frame, which can be tested for ‘fit’, and ‘built’ physically or electronically.
  • This model accounts for most of the physical and spatial characteristics of the evidence, it still requires further study using three-dimensional modelling of appropriate data sets. 
  • Reversed assembly structures, with Ties morticed directly to the Posts, naturally lend themselves to jettied construction, a feature of later ‘timber framed’ buildings in Northern Europe.
  • Reversed assembly is still used in Chinese timber architecture where it has been retained due to its resilience in earthquakes, however, the use of dougongs the and absence of bracing, are significant technological developments of this basic Neolithic model.
Imagining a Longhouse
In the previous post I dealt with issue of ‘realism’ in images and its impact of archaeological thinking; while you cannot see the past, some contemporary archaeological approaches, like post-processualism, is often descriptive of imaginary landscapes and buildings, perceived through the eyes of imaginary people. This is particularly true of the prehistoric timber built environment, which has largely vanished, leaving behind nothing but a problem of how archaeologists express tentative ideas about structures visually. 
Built environments are important; you know where you are in both space and time by the buildings; architecture is backdrop to history, the context of culture, and the spatial focus of people’s daily experience;  a central aspect of a ‘culture’, both for those who inhabit them, and those who need to imagine or realise it.

This is delightful drawing, adapted from of Approach to Architecture by Manning and N K Robertson, illustrates the difficulties of finding a style to satisfy demanding clients. [2]  It also neatly sums up the dilemma faced by archaeology; in some cases it may be possible to understand the theme or form of the structure, but the all-important visual aesthetic – what the customer wants – requires decisions to be made about issues we have no data.
To satisfy both doubt and the legitimate expectation of a ‘picture’, I deliberately add anachronisms, subvert conventions, and create contextual ambiguity to emphasise its imaginary nature.

This first image is my minimal view of a two frame building, with a first floor and attic space. It features a half hip roof at the NW end, and a central bay turned through 90° to produce a SW facing gable facilitating the lighting of the main living quarters.  

This is a three frame structure with a slightly more complex roof and windows.  It is probably close the limit in terms of elevation for this form of structure using 40 -  50’ / 12- 15m timbers. 
Essentially, these images portray a two or three storey farmhouse made from the local trees, mud and thatch, built  for needs local farmers by craftsmen who had been building for generations. Look at the ancient farms and barns of a location, and it will give a sense of scale - how much hay has to be stored, grain to be dried, and how many cows to be milked.  

The past is not a foreign country; it’s the same country a long time ago.

Sources and further reading
[1] PJR Modderman (1970), 'Linearbandkeramik aus Elsloo und Stein 2.' Tafelband, Leiden Univ., Faculty of Archaeology.
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.
[2] After; Robertson, M & N K , 1948, Approach to architecture, Edward Arnold & Co 1948,Fig. 12.


Maju said...

I must say that this is quite interesting because I always like thinking outside the box. However when I look for longhouses of actual Neolithic populations (for example in North America or Papua) they are never that elaborate nor so modern looking, and yet they have the same basic structural frame at ground level (two parallel post lines and a sparser central one).

Windows, if they exist at all, are small and infrequent, stairs do not exist (ladders instead) nor do second nor third storeys, just lateral attic-like structures for storage or sleeping space.

Your proposals are technically plausible and I would not totally discard storeys in parts of the building but a problem that arises is that the inhabitants would want to have one or several hearths inside (for heating and cooking) what, if you use wood for structures and straw for the roof, they would want ample free space in the vertical direction so the house doesn't catch fire easily and the smoke can flow upwards and then permeate through the thatched roof or whatever pre-designed holes.

Have you considered all these issues? You say nothing about them, at least not in this entry.

Geoff Carter said...

Hi Maju, thanks for the commenting, I find your response very interesting.
I think you are thinking about the N European Neolithic in terms of pictures of ‘primitive’ & ‘Neolithic’ peoples you have seen, rather than the evidence.
You cannot think of building in terms of shape.
Building is a technology is dependent on cultural, environment, and raw materials; it is not an evolutionary stage; what ‘Neolithic’ people do elsewhere in the world is irrelevant.
Ie; North American had no domestic or draught animals, cattle, sheep, pigs or hens they also did not have stone chisels to make moticed joints.
Ethnography of this sort assumes that, left to their own devices, the Native Americans would have developed their own guns and railways.
When did the Europeans discover that you could make holes in building that let in light, so you don’t have to milk the cows in the dark?
I do not know/ have not considered where the hearth[s] were; timber buildings have cooking hearths made of clay until the medieval period – think about buildings in lakes – common on all periods – and no ‘ground floor’.

Maju said...

I do not think in terms of "primitive", just according to their relative development level. We are talking of the very first farmers of Europe and in a rather "wild" area, i.e. towards the cold North.

Native Americans and Papuans were pretty much isolated. Let's not forget that guns were first invented by the Chinese, not the Europeans but they arrived to Europe (like other key Oriental inventions like horse collar and heavy plow) very quickly, while other more isolated regions either did not heard from them until too late or were unable to apply them efficiently (heavy plow in the Mediterranean of Africa is nearly useless because the soils are not deep as in Northern Europe).

Native Americans for example were delayed in their advancement relative to Eurasia but compared with the Chalcolithic and Neolithic of the Old World they were at the very same levels and anyone who knows of Teotihuacan, Machu Pichu or Poverty Point must acknowledge that. So yes, they would have developed guns and nukes in due time, no doubt.

So I think that the principle of comparison does apply at least to some extent among similarly developed societies. However they are also culturally distant ones so I also see your viewpoint of comparing with Medieval Europe and such. But still it was 6000 years earlier and they were the very first of their kind over here.

"When did the Europeans discover that you could make holes in building that let in light"...

Probably in the Aurignacian or Gravettian, if not earlier (but then they would not yet be yet "Europeans", unless Neanderthal). But that's not the issue here: hearths are not for illumination mainly but for warmth and cooking.

You can of course control them with clay and surely other materials but that requires a cultural conceptualization (i.e. a generalization of certain knowledge and the popular acceptation of it). I suspect it also requires the concept of chimney, so the fire and smoke goes up mostly by a controlled refractory space.

Actually chimneys are a central element in the villa you used as model for your drafts. And also glass windows, clearly a later development.

I was recently watching a Spanish documentary on the building of the replica of a "castro" (generic term for Iron Age villages of loosely Celtic affinity) and they expected all the time the fire to escape through the masterfully thatched roofs (style used until recently in some rural buildings), which were therefore located very high relative to the floor.

Maju said...

Oops, I misunderstood your comment: "When did the Europeans discover that you could make holes in building that let in light"... I thought about bringing light in by means of lamps. My bad, sorry.

I'm sure that you are correct about the possibility of windows. Models of houses from the Balcans (a slightly more avant-guard area until a few centuries ago but especially, for the purpose of this discussion, in the Neolithic), show homes with windows and even two storeys (Cucuteni-Tripolje). However they are not longhouses but some other more elaborate Balcanic design.

Geoff Carter said...

Hi Maju, good point, Model building are an interesting line of evidence, and related to Northern European prehistory.
If you want an interesting perspective on this type of building, look at the waterlogged site at Egolzwil, you can see how floors were constructed.

Robert John Langdon said...


Wessex archaeology has released information on a new Neolithic site at Kingsmead Quarry dated 3700BCE that contains your rectangular houses.


Keep up the good work!!


Geoff Carter said...

Hi RJL, thanks for that I will follow it up; there is one from Kent, [rail link] but the plan is got a bend in it !

Geoff Carter said...

NB; Not convinced it ia s house - 2 bay barn. Usual stuff poor reconstruction - looks like a beach hut someone saw on holiday

Anonymous said...

Hi Geoff,

couldn't find it indexed, so forgive me if you're aware of this already, but you may find some of the reconstructions of Sarmizegetusa Regia interesting.


All the best,


Geoff Carter said...

Hi Zeb,
Thanks for that - what an interesting structure.
I have not seen the archaeological ground plan so I can't really comment, I will have to follow this up, but it looks impressive; the key issue - is it a structural model or a scaled 3d picture?

Anonymous said...

Hi Geoff,

sadly I can provide little enlightenment as both my Romanian and my knowledge of how the reconstruction was done are non-existant. But it's certainly an impressive building to fit around the stone remnants, if that is what it was. Would definitely be interested in your thoughts should your mind ever wander across to Dacia at some point and it stacks up for you.

All the best; I've certainly found your thoughts around the subject of wooden buildings very intriguing. Apologies for a tangent to your thoughts on Neolithic longhouses.


Geoff Carter said...

Hi Zeb,
Always interested to find out whats going on - if you see an interesting ground plan - send it to me. [I don't have access to academic books - so I am starved of information].
Also, it is not tangential - it would be wrong to think of buildings in periods, while having a stone, bronze or Iron does effect your carpentry, it does not necessitate a redesign of your architecture.