Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Crannogs and roundhouses

Today's post was inspired by the newly-revealed fact the people of the Iron Age* decorated the walls of their dwellings, as can be seen on fragments of a clay wall found during an excavation near Wennungen, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. “We know now that prehistoric times were not grey but rather that prehistoric houses were colorfully painted,” said state archaeologist Harald Meller. Iron Age Britons lived in roundhouses or crannogs, which looked like huts, but were actually very sturdy little homes. Roundhouses were typically constructed by joining stone or wooden posts with wattle-and-daub panels and adding a conical thatched roof. Several of these have been reconstructed, for example at Pembrokeshire, Wales; Bostadh Beach on the Outer Hebrides; Peebles, Scotland (1st image, by Jim Barton, who also photographed the exterior); and Peterborough, England. Crannogs were similar structures built atop water and particular to Scotland (where reconstructions may be seen in Kenmore, Perthshire) and Ireland.

A roundhouse would have been 6-15m in diameter, with chest-high walls. The entrance may have had a porch and would have faced toward the rising sun, but away from prevailing westerly winds. Based on discoveries of iron latch-lifters, at least some roundhouses had solid wooden doors. The fire in a central open hearth would have been maintained at all times. In addition to warming the dwelling, the fire would have been used to cook food in a cauldron suspended by a chain or tripod, and to preserve food by drying or smoking it. Weaving was an activity carried out within the home, while bronze- and iron-working, flint-knapping, lathe-turning wood, and firing ceramics would have been done elsewhere in the village. Much of what we know about the Iron Age is through experimental archaeology, and a lot of that was conceived by British archaeologist Peter J. Reynolds (1939-2001). Reynolds was the 1st director of Butser Ancient Farm, an open-air museum in Petersfield, Hampshire, England, founded in 1970 to recreate a permanent working Iron Age village (see photos of the reconstruction of a roundhouse here). Reynolds' crowning achievement was the full-sized Pimperne House, at the time the largest building in Western Europe to follow prehistoric principles, and the 1st to provide real evidence of construction methods and labor and material requirements.

*The dates of this archaeological age vary by geography, but think 2,500 years ago.

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