Bronze Age Roundhouse

Jacqui Wood is a local archaeologist and she will be project managing a roundhouse build at The Outdoor Place in the next couple of years.

In the Neolithic (or New Stone Age) about 6,000 years ago all houses for farmers were rectangular. Then in the early Bronze Age, 4,000 years ago, there was trade in Cornwall and Britain with a culture from southern Spain that lived in roundhouses. This trade was thought to be a beaker-shaped pot finely decorated and filled with some sort of alcoholic drink made with myrtle, cranberries and honey. It was about this time that British roundhouses started to appear. Meanwhile the rest of Europe still lived in rectangular houses. The Romans came to the rest of Britain and built their centrally heated villas, then the Saxons (rectangular houses) came and the Vikings, but the people of Cornwall still lived in roundhouses. So the Cornish did not change the style of their homes for over four thousand years! Which makes you think roundhouses must have been a great to live in, and they also must have been extremely weatherproof too.

I believe that if you are going to find out what life was really like in prehistory Britain, you should copy the normal trappings of people lives to see how they work – this is called Experimental Archaeology. While other researchers were specialising in a particular aspect of people lives, like ceramics, houses or metallurgy, I felt that it was important to attempt to do everything people did in order to get a holistic picture of what life was really like. I also believed that it was essential to have no training in any of the skills, because you could not help but be influenced by what you were taught and would not have an open mind.

In 1992 my family decided it would be good to build a roundhouse to put all the things I had made together in the right sort of dwelling. The idea was that hopefully you would see what a prehistoric person would see when they entered their homes. So my family and friends set about foraging in Cornwall for the materials to build our first roundhouse, which is the same size as the one we plan to build for The Outdoor Place at Baldhu. It is a typically sized roundhouse, 7 metres diameter and about 7 metres high.

As The Outdoor Place has more than enough wood for the main structure the only thing we will have to forage are the water reeds for the roof. The first roundhouse we built had reeds gathered from all over the county, from Marazion to Church Cove on the Lizard,  Perranporth to near Cubert. At the time there were a number of reconstructed roundhouses in Britain, but I did not want to go and see them until we had built our own, so that we would look at the building process afresh.

The first thing to work out was the pitch of the roof? (Fig 1) I found in the archaeology a pottery roundhouse from 600BC in Germany and it had a very steep pitched roof, so we decided to copy that. We foraged the county for reeds and decided we did not have enough to properly thatch the roundhouse, but enough to give it a light coating of reeds to see us through the first winter. However, when we finished we found it did not need a thick thatch like a cottage, as the steepness of the pitch made and rain run right off it, but more importantly it was so thin that the smoke from the central fire filtered right through it! By not having enough reeds the first year we made a major discovery that roundhouses work better with a steep pitched roof and a thin layer of thatch.

When we eventually visited some of the other roundhouse that had been built they were all thickly thatched like a cottage would be. In a 7 metre diameter roundhouse when you lit a fire the smoke could not escape and was unbearable, as I found when I ran a cooking course in one in Somerset in the 1990s. This is the beauty of experimental archaeology – you just don’t know how things really work until you make them. That is the same whether it is a pot, a piece of textile or a house!