Iron Age Roundhouses

Unlike the preceding two thousand years, which remain conspicuous in the British landscape by way of their monumental tombs and temples while settlement evidence is sparse, the archaeological record of the late second and first millennium b.c.e. in Britain—conventionally labeled as the Middle Bronze Age to the Late Iron Age—is characterized by settlements. There were isolated farmsteads; villages, both open and fortified; and hill forts, some of which housed communities of several hundred people. The dominant form of domestic architecture during this period was the roundhouse, and several thousand of these have been uncovered by archaeologists over the years. They were generally of moderate size, typically between about eight meters (twenty-five feet) and fifteen meters (fifty feet) across. A ring of upright wooden posts or planks, either within the walls or forming a separate interior ring, supported a conical roof, which was probably thatched with straw or reeds and may often have been covered in turf. Inside this roof space, smoke from a central fire could accumulate before gradually permeating out through the thatch.

The roundhouse provided good and effective shelter from the British climate, and it is scarcely surprising that there was just a single doorway. But it may seem odd that the direction the entrance faced was far from random. At first, roundhouses faced predominantly southward, but from c. 1200 b.c.e. onward the great majority of roundhouse doorways faced generally toward the east or southeast. Why? An obvious practical explanation is that by placing the entrance in this direction the roundhouse interior would be sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds and could be warmed by letting the early morning sunlight enter the house. Yet if westerly winds were the major factor, might there not be greater variation in orientation? It also seems curious that little attempt was made to avoid the elements in the actual siting of buildings and settlements. Furthermore, similar orientation practices seem to extend more widely—for example, to hill fort entrances, where the prevailing wind would hardly have been a consideration.

The "obvious" explanation was increasingly challenged in the 1990s. Detailed analyses of the azimuths of roundhouse entrances showed that there are particular concentrations around due east (between about 85 degrees and 95 degrees) and similarly around southeast (between about 125 degrees and 135 degrees). There was a significant drop between the two as well as a sharp drop outside the whole range (85 degrees to 135 degrees). The second of the two ranges corresponds to the position of midwinter sunrise, prompting suggestions that the solstitial sun was the intended target, and a natural extension of the argument was to suggest that the easterly concentration had something to do with the equinox. But why should the equinox have been a significant target at all, since it does not represent a physical "station of the sun," only the half-way point between its two extreme rising positions? The position of winter solstice sunrise, on the other hand, is certainly tangible, in that it represents the limit of the part of the horizon where the sun can rise, separating it from the southern quarter, which the sun only ever passes over. But even so, why should the direction of sunrise at different times in the year have had any bearing upon the way people oriented their houses and other structures?

Vital clues are provided by practices still known among certain modern indigenous peoples, together with broader archaeological evidence concerning the spatial distribution of different activities within the Iron Age roundhouses themselves. To take one modern example, hogans, traditional houses of the Navajo, face eastwards toward the sacred mountain of the east, for reasons that have to do with keeping life in harmony with a cosmos perceived to be divided into four quarters. The earth lodges of the Pawnee provide another example where the dominant practice of entrance orientation— again, toward the east—derives from the dominant worldview. A more general principle is at work in these cases, of which entrance orientations form just one part: these modern roundhouses serve as models of the world—microcosms—designed as such so that people can live their lives at one with the cosmos.

Recent work provides compelling evidence that there were many symbolic divisions of space and activity within Iron-Age roundhouses in relation to their overall design and orientation: for example, between living, eating, and sleeping; between preparing and eating food; between male and female activities; and so on. Everyday activities that we would see as mundane and unconsequential were, it seems, strictly enacted in accordance with a prevailing worldview, as is the case among the modern indigenous peoples just mentioned. Within this context, it is scarcely surprising that the entrance orientations should have been heavily influenced by cosmological considerations.

Nonetheless, considerations that seem to us altogether more pragmatic may also have played their part. As in the case of the Pawnee earth lodge, the practical benefits of houses facing the warmth of the early morning sun could certainly have been recognized. The separation between behavior that we would see as having clear practical ends and what we might choose to describe as symbolic or even irrational did not exist in the minds of prehistoric people. There was no clear separation between special rites that appeased the cosmic powers and those mundane activities that filled and maintained life from hour to hour and day to day. In this sense, there was a sacred aspect to the very houses in which they lived out their daily lives; the orientation of those houses in relation to the rising sun is just one manifestation of this.

See also:

Cosmology; Equinoxes; Solstitial Alignments.

Navajo Cosmology; Navajo Hogan; Pawnee Cosmology; Pawnee Earth Lodge.

Azimuth; Solstices.

References and further reading

Champion, Timothy, and John Collis, eds. The Iron Age in Britain and Ireland: Recent Trends, 117-132. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.

Gwilt, Adam, and Colin Haselgrove, eds. Reconstructing Iron Age Societies, 87-95. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1997.

Hill, J. D. Ritual and Rubbish in the Iron Age of Wessex, ch. 11. Oxford: Tempus Reparatum (BAR International Series 602), 1995.

Hunter, John, and Ian Ralston, eds. The Archaeology of Britain, 113-134. London: Routledge, 1999.

Parker Pearson, Michael and Colin Richards, eds. Architecture and Order: Approaches to Social Space, 47-54. London: Routledge, 1994.

Parker Pearson, Michael, Niall Sharples, and Jim Symonds. South Uist: Archaeology and History of a Hebridean Island, 69-79. Stroud, UK: Tempus, 2004.

Pryor, Francis. Britain B.C., 320-331. London: HarperCollins, 2003.

Ruggles, Clive. Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, 153. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

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