Author: Lara Cook, Project Archaeologist
Roundhouses were structures that were built throughout the UK during the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. The first example of these structures being built in the UK was found in South West Scotland, and dates to the later 3rd millennium BC.
Roundhouses were constructed out of timber posts and stakes. Hazel or willow wattle were then weaved between the stakes, followed by daub being plastered over the wattle, creating a durable hard surface. The roof was thought to have been thatched using reeds. On average, the diameter of roundhouses was 8m, but they can range in size from 4-14m, with only rare examples being over 14m.
In the archaeological record, roundhouses aren’t very easy to see due to the fact that the only things that usually survive are post holes in the centre of the ring, and circular gullies from the wall foundations, with regularly spaced stake holes in them. Sometimes there may not be any evidence of post holes at all, as there could have been a free standing roof instead of a roof supported by traditional posts in the centre. Furthermore, the reverse can happen whereby the post holes can be present but no evidence of a ring gully exists. Another thing that can occasionally be seen on roundhouse sites is a circular ring which surrounds the gully. This would have been formed by water dripping down the eves of the roof and washed away sediment, thus forming a natural gully. Sometimes this gully would have been dug deliberately to direct the flow of water away from the walls of the roundhouse.
Roundhouses would most likely have been used as both living and work spaces, due to the size of the structures and the types of artefacts that have been recovered during excavations. The types of artefacts that you would expect to find in roundhouse sites can be split into categories, such as domestic tools and artefacts, and would have been used in a variety of day to day activities, such as food production and agriculture. For example, pot and animal bone, which is evidence of food production, are frequent finds in Bronze Age and Iron Age roundhouse sites because the material that they’re made from is quite robust, meaning that they survive well in the archaeological record. Artefacts like loom weights and spindle whorls, which are finds associated with the activity of weaving, can be found in roundhouses for the same reason. Another artefact that can be found are quern stones. Querns were used to grind grain by hand and are finds associated with the production of food. In addition to these artefacts, there would have been a variety of other tools being used that were made out of more delicate materials like leather, wood and textiles but, due to the nature of these materials, they would not be preserved in the archaeological record outside of waterlogged contexts.
In recent years there have been reconstructions depicting what Iron Age roundhouses could have looked like, such as Castell Henllys Iron Age Village in Pembrokeshire, Wales. Castell Henllys is an Iron Age hillfort where experimental archaeologists and volunteers reconstructed roundhouses using the same techniques and materials that would have been used during the original construction of the structures. Another site where archaeologists have attempted a similar feat is Butser Ancient Farm, located in the South Downs, Hampshire. Here, archaeologists have reconstructed not only the Iron Age structures, but buildings that span all the way through to the Anglo Saxons. Both Butser and Castell Henllys have furnished the roundhouses in accordance with current theories on the layout of these structures, thus giving a physical representation as to what these structures may have originally looked like in the Iron Age.